Enemy is a brooding examination of the male psyche that shimmers on the edge of surrealism, a cipher of modernity, and the mundane, which takes refuge in the shadows of a soulless cityscape. Its discordant narrative is loosely adapted from Jose Saramago’s novel The Double. Director Denis Villeneuve has taken the book’s central thematic of identity crisis and spun it into a dark little web of his own.
The film’s opening quote, ‘Chaos is order yet undeciphered’, lays bare Villeneuve’s aesthetic approach to the story of a philosophy teacher, Daniel, (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose professional aloofness and cynical world view has left him adrift in a dingy apartment, with a city girl (Melanie Laurent), who is a spectre of empty pleasure. A co-worker’s offhand film recommendation throws Daniel’s identity into question, as he discovers a small time actor, Anthony Saint Claire, who looks exactly like him. A feverish obsession takes over Daniel to meet Anthony, which leads him down a path of David Lynch-esque madness and infidelity.
Gyllenhaal crafts a dual performance that oscillates between beta and alpha male, framing a fractured masculinity unable to reconcile itself with its carnal desires and domestic duties. It is hard to think of a another actor who could portray an awkward professor and a raging self-absorbed actor in the same scene. There’s a tortured beauty to his internalised anguish that bubbles beneath the surface, which suggests that Daniel and Anthony share something deeper than just their physical attributes. Sarah Gadon is magnetic as Anthony’s pregnant wife. Her fragile and haunting presence is the linchpin that anchors the story’s twisting reality which is suffused with nightmarish spider-ladies. And Isabella Rossellini is commanding as Daniel’s stoic mother, who offers counsel laced with a touch of venom.
Villeneuve’s use of long rolling takes and allowing the actors to improvise has imbued each frame with a smouldering intensity that creeps under the skin. The filmmaker’s surgical repetition of the spiderweb motif, which is composed in images of criss-crossing power lines, broken car windows and steamy shower doors, supplants the traditional use of expositional dialogue, which would spell out the film’s dramatic thesis. Villeneuve has made a brave artistic choice to let the audience decipher the narrative and discern for themselves what is fact and doomed fantasy. Enemy may appear to be perplexing at first, but underneath its sumptuous imagery is a discourse on human fidelity that is destined to repeat itself ad infinitum.