Enemy (2013)

2016 #136
Denis Villeneuve | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Canada & Spain / English | 15 / R

EnemyBetween his popular English-language debut Prisoners and his apparently-not-quite-as-popular-but-definitely-better-in-my-opinion drugs thriller Sicario (its IMDb score is a whole 0.5 points lower, which is more than it sounds), French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made this less-widely-seen psychological thriller. I think it may’ve struggled to find distribution (here in the UK it definitely went either straight to digital or was a day-and-date cinema-and-digital release), which, once you’ve seen it, is unsurprising: it’s considerably less accessible than any of Villeneuve’s other English-language features.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Adam, a discontented university lecturer, who one day spots a bit player in a movie, Daniel St. Claire, who looks exactly like him. Discovering the actor’s real name is Anthony, Adam tracks him down and discovers… well, that’s getting into spoiler territory. Let’s just say things get more than a bit weird at times.

There’s no denying that Enemy is atmospheric, but the actual story was a bit too elliptical for my taste. It was all going fairly swimmingly until it suddenly stopped just before it appeared to be going to offer answers. That naturally suggests you need to go back and reconsider/deconstruct what you’ve already seen, but it nonetheless makes it feel a bit frustrating, at least initially, and makes reading theories online a virtual necessity for deciphering the movie’s meaning (unless you want to try to work it all out by yourself, of course). I’ve read a few of those theories, and I’m not sure any have won me over 100%, but they did enhance my understanding. Nonetheless, I find myself sticking with my initial assessment.

I wish I knew how to quit my boring jobWhile looking up those various explanations, I read at least one review that asserted it’s a good thing that the film doesn’t provide a clear answer at the end. Well, I think that’s a debatable point. I mean, there is an answer — Villeneuve & co clearly know what they’re doing, to the point where they made the actors sign contracts that forbade them from revealing too much to the press. So why is it “a good thing” that they choose to not explain that answer in the film? This isn’t just a point about Enemy, it’s one we can apply more widely. There’s a certain kind of film critic/fan who seems to look down on any movie that ends with an explanation for all the mysteries you’ve seen, but if you give them a movie where those mysteries do have a definite answer but it’s not actually provided as part of the film, they’re in seventh heaven. (And no one likes a movie where there are mysteries but no one has an answer for them, do they? That’d just be being mysterious for precisely no purpose.) But why is this a good thing? Why is it good for there to be answers but not to give them, and bad for there to be answers and to provide them too? If the answers the filmmakers intended are too simplistic or too pat or too well-worn or too familiar, then they’re poor for that reason, and surely they’re still just as poor if you don’t readily provide them? I rather like films that have mysteries and also give me the answers to those mysteries. Is that laziness on my part? Could be. But I come back to this: if, as a filmmaker (or novelist or whatever) you have an answer for your mystery and you don’t give it in the text itself, what is your reason for not giving it in the text? Because I think perhaps you need one.

Could be pregnant, could be a third scatter cushionFortunately, Enemy has much to commend aside from its confounding plot. Gyllenhaal’s dual performance is great, making Adam and Anthony distinct in more ways than just their clothing (which is a help for the viewer, but not for the whole film), and conveying the pair’s mental unease really well. It would seem he errs towards this kind of role, from his name-making turn in Donnie Darko on out, which does make it all the odder that he once did Prince of Persia and was very nearly almost Spider-Man. I guess everyone likes money, right? As Anthony’s wife, Sarah Gadon also gets to offer a lot of generally very subtle acting. Her character’s evolving thoughts and feelings are not to be found in her minimal dialogue, but are clearly conveyed through her expressions and actions. On the other hand, Mélanie Laurent feels wasted, her role as Adam’s girlfriend requiring little more than being an object of desire — a part she’s completely qualified for, but also one she’s overqualified for.

Some find Nicolas Bolduc’s yellow-soaked cinematography too much, but I thought it was highly effective. Especially when mixed with the location of Toronto, a city we’re not so familiar with seeing on screen (or I’m not, anyway), it lends the setting a foreign, alien, unfamiliar feel, which is at once modern, even futuristic, but also dated, or rundown. The dystopian sensation is only emphasised by the distant yellow smog that seems to permanently hang over the city. It’s pleasantly creepy, but not the creepiest thing: the use of spiders is scary as fuck. I’m not properly arachnophobic, but I don’t like the buggers, and some of their surprise appearances are more effective at delivering chills (and potentially nightmares) than many a dedicated horror movie. (Incidentally, there’s a bit in Object of desireArrival that instantly called this to mind. I don’t know if it was a deliberate self-reference or just Villeneuve recycling techniques.)

For a certain kind of film fan, I imagine Enemy is Villeneuve’s masterpiece (at least among his English language features; I’m not au fait with his earlier work). For the rest of us, I’d guess it slips in behind his other movies as an interesting but frustratingly arty also-ran.

3 out of 5

11 thoughts on “Enemy (2013)

  1. Great review! I really loved the mystery behind this one, and realising that details early on which seemed insignificant actually held a lot of meaning, but the story surrounding it all was just a bit too slow. Still a brilliant movie!
    – Allie

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thought-provoking piece man. I have to say, after I first saw this (actually it’s still the only viewing as of this comment) I had no idea what to think of it. Enemy was just so bizarre. It was also frustrating for me from a narrative perspective; this is by far Villeneuve’s most abstract piece and he’s already a filmmaker who, like Nolan, takes things to another intellectual level with the way he constructs his stories. But now, in the weeks and months (maybe a year?) since, I think I need to get back and give this another watch. if anything, for those creepy-as-dammit spiders. You’re right. Those were the freakiest things EVER

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hmm, I really need to see this. I’m (naturally) something of a fan of this director and still have Incendies on the to-watch pile. From reading this review its quite bizarre that the guy went on to make the Blade Runner sequel (we’re all waiting to see how THAT turns out, bit it seems a bit of inspired director-casting like Dave Lynch on Dune).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do think it suggests that whoever was in charge of picking the Blade Runner 2 director knew the kind of thing that film actually needed. It would’ve been very easy to go “this is a sci-fi franchise, let’s get [second-time director who happened to direct a franchise movie that made $1bn last year]”, but instead they’ve remembered the original is no effects blockbuster and hired someone up to the task of creating an intelligent, thoughtful movie.

      Enemy isn’t the best example of why Villeneuve’s qualified for the job, but, conversely, I’d rather it was being directed by someone who’s capable of making a film like Enemy than by the latest “J.J. Abrams lite”.


      • Oh, absolutely, yes. Its the thing that has me most excited about the sequel, that it doesn’t seem to be in the ‘cgi action-fest’ modern sci-fi tradition that it could have been, rather its hopefully going to be as thoughtful as the original. Of course I could be wrong, it could be Villeneuves’ entry into the mainstream blockbuster league, but based on what he and Johannsson have been saying about the original, I think they ‘get it’ and their involvement is pretty exciting. Doesn’t hurt that Arrival is such intelligent and dramatic sci fi either. My God, I really think they can pull it off. Go hack ten years and tell me all about it and I wouldnt believe it.

        Liked by 1 person

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