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ENEMY Movie Review – Two Jakes, One Twilight Zone

Enemy, a loose adaptation (operative word being “loose”) of Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago’s (“Blindness,” “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” “Baltasar and Blimunda”) bestselling 2002 novel, “The Double,” marks the second collaboration between French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) and Jake Gyllenhaal. Their first collaboration, Prisoners (actually produced first, but released second theatrically), a revenge-thriller with arthouse ambitions, was at best a mixed success (i.e., financially, if not aesthetically). If nothing else, Prisoners helped elevate Villeneuve’s profile, making Enemy slightly more marketable to mainstream moviegoers. Enemy, however, is far from mainstream. With its singular obsession on psychological deterioration, identity/reality slippage, metaphysical obscurantism, and existential dread, Enemy isn’t meant for general moviegoers, but a self-selected subset, cinephiles and other adventurous moviegoers conversant with the minimalist, European Art Cinema tropes Villeneuve unapologetically embraces from the first, disorienting scene to the last ambiguous image.

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Enemy opens with a scene that pays explicit homage to Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut (specifically the orgy-related scenes), while simultaneously setting the discomfiting, oneiric tone for everything that follows. What seems to be an ultra-private sex club, complete with naked women and masks, turns into something else altogether when the grim-faced men surrounding the stage blankly witness a fatal encounter between a masked woman and a spider. Spiders reappear periodically in Enemy, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground in a possible nightmare or hallucination. Their connection – whatever that might be – to Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal), the central character in Enemy, and his apparent psychological disintegration suggests the exteriorization of that character’s turbulent state of mind, his subjective reality (as opposed to the presumed objective reality most films implicitly depict and audiences accept as such).

Bell, an introverted, college history professor, finds himself at an existential crossroads when he inadvertently comes across his doppelgänger in a little known film, “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way,” he rents on the recommendation of a persistent co-worker. He tracks his doppelgänger (and bit player), Anthony St. Claire (Gyllenhaal again), to the latter’s talent agency and from there, to Claire’s home. Bell inadvertently reaches St. Claire’s pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), becoming even more obsessed with his doppelgänger when Helen hears his voice and assumes it’s her husband. Bell and St. Claire eventually meet in person, seemingly dispelling the initial possibility that Bell and St. Claire are really the same person, two halves of a dissociated, split personality. They’re not long-lost identical twins adopted by two different families. Their identical scars dispel that idea too. And for all of their physical similarities, their personalities don’t align. St. Claire is everything Bell isn’t. He’s assertive, aggressive, and impulsive. Once they meet, St. Claire turns the metaphorical tables on Bell, stalking Bell and becoming fascinated, even obsessed with Bell’s girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent). Essentially, they’re two sides of the same masculine coin.

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Not surprisingly, Enemy isn’t the kind of film that ends with a clear-cut resolution or anything approaching the emotional catharsis typical of a mainstream film. Villeneuve and his screenwriter, Javier Gullón (Invader, Hierro, The Road to Santiago), aren’t interested in tidy, uplifting endings, but in untidy, messy ones, the kind of abrupt, closure-free endings that leave moviegoers equal parts perplexed and perturbed. Whatever moviegoers think of the ending, there’s little doubt that Villeneuve has carefully crafted a metaphysical maze with no way out and too many ways in. It’s as much as about creating all-encompassing dread in moviegoers via story, character, cinematography (grimy, muddy, yellow), sound design, and score (atonal, discordant, dissonant), compelling them – however temporarily – in Bell’s existential predicament and ask themselves how they would react if they met their own doppelgänger.

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.