Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” (2013)

Notable Festivals: Toronto International Festival

Since his debut in the American studio system with 2013’s PRISONERS, director Denis Villeneuve has steadily carved out a monolithic space for himself as that rare breed of big budget filmmaker who can effortlessly combine a mastery of visceral spectacle with a superlative storytelling intelligence. Films like SICARIO (2015), ARRIVAL (2016) and BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) firmly foreground themselves in the established visual grammar and relatively-narrow narrative parameters of their respective genres, yet they all resonate with a broader psychological subtext about the bleaker aspects of the human condition. This hybrid form — referred to by Villeneuve himself as “psychodrama” — is a singular creative trait that unifies his body of work, from his 1994 short debut REW FFW to (assumedly) his upcoming adaptation of DUNE. While his films are often steeped in a harrowing sense of realism, as in SICARIO, POLYTECHNIQUE (2009) or INCENDIES (2010), Villeneuve’s signature approach arguably finds its most potent application in more surreal, dreamlike works like MAELSTROM. None of the aforementioned films, however, can hold a candle to the pure, unadulterated nightmare-scape that is his 2013 feature, ENEMY.

Indeed, ENEMY is so soaked in the atmosphere of the subconscious and the act of dreaming that it oftentimes feels like a film that doesn’t actually exist. A subliminal tangle of contradictions and intentional opacity, it is both a last-chance grasp at art house freedom and a retreat from the Hollywood system. The entirety of its production and release bookends that of PRISONERS’, shooting before that film and released after its completion in a manner that makes it somewhat unclear where to place the film in a chronological exploration of Villeneuve’s wider canon. It’s almost like a film that blipped into our existence from an alternate universe. It’s not just otherworldly— its unreal. 

The circumstances of its making, of course, are much more mundane. Based on the novel “The Double”, by Jóse Saramago, ENEMY was a joint production between Canadian and Spanish film companies, written by Javier Gullón, produced by Miguel A. Far & Niv Fichman, and shot in Toronto— a city used so often as a Hollywood backlot stand-in for generic urban environments that it just might have been the ultimate Anonymous City had it not been for the Space Needle-esque CN Tower. However, it’s exactly this anonymous quality that lends ENEMY its dreamlike power. Wikipedia describes the story’s genre as a “surrealist Neo-noir psychological thriller mystery”— a jumble of evocative words that ultimately doesn’t mean anything. Genre only means as much to Villeneuve’s efforts as it can convey the archetypical grammar of our collective subconscious. ENEMY operates more along the lines of allegory or parable, its key story beats strung together by hazy dream logic and sinewy spider silk. 

Most people know of Jake Gyllenhaal’s haunted performance for Villeneuve as Detective Loki in PRISONERS, but their fruitful collaboration was actually a byproduct of their work together here. Gyllenhaal delivers dual performances, making arguably one of the biggest challenges an actor could face — acting against oneself — seem as easy and natural as could be. As the college history professor Adam, he assumes a quiet & meek affectation; easily trod upon by anyone who cares enough to. His identical counterpart, Anthony, is the dark mirror image: a seeker of attention by way of a middling acting career, self-obsessed to the point of narcissicim, and possessed of a mild psychotic streak. In certain respects, the mechanics of Gyllenhaal’s performance are more interesting than the characters he’s depicting, deftly moving between these opposing personas with little more than minor adjustments— for instance, switching his dominant hand depending on which character he’s currently inhabiting. In several instances, he’s also effectively improvising with himself, deliberately going off-script in one take in a way that forces him to respond when he switches over. A mixture of high and low-tech tools allow Gyllenhaal to pursue his ambitious strategy, whether it’s acting opposite a tennis ball on a stick (1) or moving in sync with a motion-controlled camera for the film’s trickier illusions.

While given nowhere near the amount of screen time afforded of Gyllenhaal, ENEMY’s trio of supporting female characters nevertheless provide compelling counterweights to his inwardly-collapsing paranoia. Mélanie Laurent, arguably best known to American audiences for her starring turn in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009), plays Adam’s girlfriend Mary— a distant, cold, and disconnected blonde whose true feelings for him are hard to decipher. Further deepening ENEMY’s obsession with doubles, Villeneuve casts Sarah Gadon as Anthony’s corresponding significant other, Helen, who is also a direct opposite of Mary. Hers is a platinum shade of blonde, maybe artificial… but there’s nothing fake about her warm, nurturing nature. Somewhere in the second or third trimester of pregnancy, Helen stands in stark contrast to her counterpart; her strength is a quiet insightfulness that Anthony mistakes as weakness— and a license to walk all over her. Isabella Rossellini makes a brief, yet memorable, appearance as Adam’s mother, further deepening the central mystery with her coldly pragmatic character who may or may not know what’s really going on with her son.

While his partnership with cinematographer Roger Deakins and the moody, Oscar-nominated photography of PRISONERS is generally regarded as Villeneuve’s point of entry into the digital realm, ENEMY uses his first true experience with the medium as a kind of quick test run. Captured in 2K resolution on Arri Alexa cameras using Hawk V-Lite 1.3x anamorphic lenses, ENEMY makes an earnest effort to see just how far a digital sensor can be pushed in the pursuit of unforgettable imagery. Working with cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, Villeneuve emphasizes the narrative’s singular obsession with duality by exaggerating the contrast between his image’s light and dark values. Shadows and highlights dance along the edge of exposure, with the 2.35:1 frame’s subjects frequently obscured as silhouettes. Villeneuve and Bolduc, in tandem with careful palette selections by returning production designer Patrice Vermette, drain the image of almost all color, creating a monochromatic look that would approximate black & white if not for the sickly saffron hue that envelopes every exposed pixel. Highly reminiscent of the intense air pollution that blankets China or India — or a penetrating poison gas — this deliberately-stylized look gives ENEMY a distinct character that further reinforces Villeneuve’s hazy, dreamlike atmosphere. Neither fully warm or fully cool, ENEMY’s amber coating suggests a suspended psychological state caught between the two color temperatures— integration with one’s environment versus alienation from it. Villeneuve adopts a complementary approach to camera movement, creating the impression of floating detachment via the frequent use of Steadicam setups, butter-smooth dolly work and slow, creeping zooms. 

Of course, no discussion of ENEMY’s visual hallmarks would be complete without mention of the spider motif Villeneuve employs throughout. Easily the source of the film’s most disturbing imagery — particularly, the stomach-churning, out-of-nowhere shock of its final moments — the presence of spiders bears no narrative relation to the plot, per se. Instead, they serve a strictly-metaphorical purpose; they are decorative ornamentation affixed to the structure, infusing the proceedings with an allusive, nightmarish subtext. Whether it’s the spiders incorporated into the performances at the underground sex club Anthony is seen attending, a dream-state vision of a nude, spider-headed woman walking down a hallway, a smashed window splintering into a cobweb pattern, or a skyscraper-sized long-leg arachnid perched against downtown Toronto, Villeneuve leverages the chilling iconography of the species at every turn. This approach event extends to the music, composed by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans and arranged for what sounds to be a string quartet, creating a prickly, spindly sound that evokes the distinctly foreboding creep of eight legs.

One might naturally ask what the artistic purpose is behind the creation of such an unpleasant atmosphere as ENEMY’s. After all, why subject the audience to the ever-present terror of spiders if there’s no apparent reason for them? Those looking for easy answers are bound to be disappointed; Villeneuve’s collaborators are reportedly prohibited from talking about the significance of the film’s spiders (1). Some have theorized that they represent Adam and Anthony’s weakness relative to their female counterparts, in that the females of the species are bigger and more dominant (1). Writing for Slate, Forrest Wickman presents one of the more intriguing theories, positioning ENEMY as a kind of parable for the insidious invisibility of totalitarian states. He goes on to elaborate, suggesting spiderwebs as an appropriate metaphor for the tangle of sociopolitical movements that people can’t necessarily see until they’re already hopelessly ensnared within it (2).

In his observations that totalitarianism is a natural human tendency — a need to control one’s environment that comes from deep within, instead of external factors — Wickman arguably strikes the closest to Villeneuve’s supposed artistic intent. Villeneuve’s clearest comments towards this end convey his desire to plumb the mysterious depths of the subconscious; more specifically, he’s interested in our conscious attempts to avoid repeating the same mistakes, or to subvert our unconscious proclivities towards repetition (3). “Sometimes you have compulsions that you can’t control coming from the subconscious”, Villeneuve explains, “they are the dictator inside ourselves” (2). In this light, Villeneuve’s thematic signatures position him as the ideal filmmaker for the material; its place within his larger body of work made all the more evident. This idea of an interior tyranny stemming from one’s own unconscious impulses, externalized as visual stimulus, feeds into Villeneuve’s talent for constructing foreboding cinematic environments. With ENEMY in particular, Villeneuve emphasizes Toronto’s brutalist architecture — anonymizing housing projects and institutional design “efficiencies” — to better reflect the individual’s alienation from contemporary urban life. 

The narrative’s focus on two dueling male personas throws the female characters into sharper relief, with Helen in particular servicing Villeneuve’s artistic interest in the unique fortitudes of motherhood. An inherently quiet, passive person, Helen could easily be construed as weak or submissive; indeed, Anthony takes frequent advantage of this misconception to place himself front and center in their relationship. That she’s woven directly into the film’s shock ending signifies just how integral she is to ENEMY’s narrative and thematic threads. Her seeming passiveness gives her a strategic observational advantage, allowing her to see right through Adam’s feeble attempts to pose as Anthony and seduce her while his twin is off on a romantic getaway with his assumedly oblivious girlfriend. For her part, Mary is just as astute an observer, foiling Anthony’s deception by noticing an extremely tiny detail that, in his narcissism and hubris, he easily overlooks— the tan line left behind where his wedding ring ought to be. Helen knows the man in her bed pretending to be her husband is not who he says he is, but she sees a chance to assert her own needs and wants by using Anthony’s own deceits against him. Adam’s conscience won’t let him follow through with his plan, so Helen takes charge and effectively does it for him. It may be a twisted sense of strength, but one could hardly call it weakness.

ENEMY premiered in the Special Presentation section of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, going on to a wider release in 2014 handled by the buzzy prestige-indie outfit, A24. The film was received quite positively by critics, many of whom compared its surreal, dreamlike atmosphere to the work of David Lynch (unconsciously predicting Villeneuve’s future take on DUNE, which Lynch adapted his own version of in 1984). While it made a relatively modest blip on the radar of American audiences, it made quite a splash on the Canadian awards circuit where Villeneuve was already a perennial presence, ultimately taking five Canadian Screen Awards including Best Motion Picture, Best Supporting Actress (for Gadon’s performance) and Best Director. While his ascent into the American studio “Big Leagues” was already well underway, ENEMY’s Canadian awards success would serve as a sublime book-end to early successes like MAELSTROM and POLYTECHINQUE— and a fitting farewell to the film industry of his homeland.

ENEMY is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Credits:

Written by: Javier Gullón

Produced by: Miguel A. Fara, Niv Fichman

Director of Photography: Nicolas Bolduc

Production Designer: Patrice Vermette

Edited by: Matthew Hannam

Music by: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. Via Wikipedia: What Should We Make of Enemy’s Shocking Ending?”. Slate. 14 March 2014. Retrieved 24 May 2018.
  3. Via Wikipedia: Hilary Lewis (13 March 2014). “‘Enemy’ Director on Jake Gyllenhaal’s Identical Characters: ‘It’s Maybe Two Sides of the Same Persona'”. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 24 May 2018.

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