VOD Review: Enemy.
Our last look at director Denis Villeneuve is stylish and tense, but a tad over-thought.
We’re going to end our look at Denis Villeneuve’s movies the way we started, with a high concept story adapted from the work of a terrific writer. Much like he did with Arrival, Denis Villeneuve takes some artistic liberties with Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, adding in a dystopian fantasy element that is well intended, but just doesn’t quite fit. It’s a shame, because otherwise this movie is nearly flawless.
Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a bit of a sad sack. As a mid-level academic, he is going through the routine of teaching a mostly empty auditorium about totalitarian governments. At home, he has a weird dynamic with this girlfriend, which seems to border on sexual assault and frequently sees her leaving his place in a rush. He’s painfully isolated, so a colleague suggests he see a movie: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way. Adam notices that one of the small part actors, Anthony, looks identical to himself. He stalks his possible body double, accidentally impersonating him in order to get his address. He tries to set up a meeting, but when the pair meet, their troubles become exponential.
The Golden Hour
Enemy is a movie that will capture your attention due to its unique aesthetic and strong performances, and also due to the unvarnished weirdness of the film. Villeneuve chooses lens effects that lend an otherworldly golden tint to the entire film, and he often chooses settings with high contrast lighting. Characters step out of and into shadow frequently, adding a subtle menace to even casual conversations. Layered throughout the piece are troubling images that are never fully resolved, including spiders and fascist imagery.
The upshot is that this film appears to have many layers of subtlety, though the actual depth of the waters being hinted at is up for debate. The film begins with a striking scene of a secret strip club where nude women in gold masks crush spiders for the pleasure of men like Anthony. Other images of spiders and webs recur, but the film never gives a satisfactory narrative about their meaning, or even of their actual existence. Scenes are repeated for effect, showing not only Adam’s tedious life, but hinting that his words are pregnant with meaning…or just babble from an overwrought intellectual. Once again, it is more of a hint of depth than a fully coherent argument.
Enemy requires either an acceptance of tenuous ideas being held in mind just out of reach, or a willingness to do some homework. Several of the recurring themes are themes that are important to Saramago’s literature…just not actually found in The Double. If you want to unpack a lot of these, you’re not just going to have to read the book, but many books. Dictators and webs of control are frequent themes of Saramago’s, here grafted onto the piece from other trees in the vineyard. Much like the addition of the military thriller angle to Arrival, I feel that the additions to Enemy fail to feel fully organic to the piece.
That’s not to say Enemy is a bad film, or a manipulative film, but it is a film that wants to add layers to a story that ends up being fairly simple, if mystifying. Doppelgangers and body doubles fascinate and horrify audiences around the world, and they’re certainly not new. Enemy is a decently unsettling doppelganger story that may lack a larger message or theme than the inherent terror of losing your identity, and so extra themes have been added, to mixed effect.
Enemy begs to be re-watched, but refuses clarification. Instead, each viewing should be taken as an opportunity to indulge one hypothesis and see how the events fit into that narrative. Jake Gyllenhall (who manages his double roles expertly) claims that his character has no double, but is a man divided by his attachment to two women. That’s a workable theory that colors much of the movie in a different light, but is ultimately not completely born out by the evidence. You can likewise indulge theories of a more science fiction influenced story, where the spiders are not metaphors but actual invaders from another dimension. Once again, it’s a fun angle but not completely in agreement with the narrative.
In fact, I can think of at least half a dozen narratives all vying for your belief on each viewing, which is fun but somewhat overwhelming. The contradictions that allow each theory to remain in contention are not always sensible, leading to some contrived elements or willful suppression of known facts. That artifice leaves a note of “just so” story telling; ultimately it makes the film feel false in places. It is not enough to ruin the film, but it is enough to remind you that you are watching a piece of performance art. It is quite good in places, and certainly lovely in places, but it feels hollow upon retrospection.