Enemy (2013)

Denis Villeneuve | 1hr 35min

We might like to believe that we can distinguish the surreal dreams of Enemy from the real lives of its characters. A woman with a spider’s head walks down a hallway, as the camera tracks upside down along the ceiling. Another spider with long, spindly legs looms over the city of Toronto where the story is set, casting an apocalyptic shadow over its hazy, yellow cityscape. Denis Villeneuve’s unsettling arachnid motif is both sensual and terrifying, constantly underscoring the subliminal, sexual insecurity of his main character – or characters, depending on how you view it. But as the blending of identities between college professor Adam and film actor Anthony intensifies, mysterious gaps in our understanding begin to open up. Soon we realise that the only way we can fill them in is by discarding notions of reality, and instead understanding Enemy through the subconscious fantasies and nightmares of one erratic, disturbed mind.

This is the second time Villeneuve has rolled his camera upside down along a corridor ceiling – we previously saw this in Polytechnique, and he returns to it here with the the dim, golden lighting and surreal spider imagery.
Virtually all of Enemy is drenched in this striking yellow and green lighting, like a pervasive contamination.

If we are to make sense of these characters, then it is worth singling out the fact that there are only two scenes in the entire film that see them physically occupy the same space, and right from their first meeting both can tell that there is something unnatural about it. Everything from their voices to their scars is uncannily identical, though the subtle differences in Jake Gyllenhaal’s dual performances effectively set up both as opposing masculine archetypes – the brash, misogynistic player, and the quiet, reserved academic. His accomplishment here stands proudly alongside Jeremy Irons’ twin gynaecologists in Dead Ringers, who similarly act as inverse reflections of each other, but the bizarre connections between Gyllenhaal’s total strangers might be more evocative of Irene Jacobs’ mystically linked doppelgängers in The Double Life of Veronique. Either way, Villeneuve instils Enemy with brilliant form in the counterpoints between his identical characters, binding them so tightly together that they might as well be two sides of one dishonest, unfaithful man.

As for the uneasy surrealism that pervades this obscure narrative through cryptic motifs, Villeneuve draws on David Lynch as a key influence, steadily undermining our belief that Adam’s ordinary, monotonous life is the “default” reality simply because we meet him first. This isn’t too dissimilar from the trick Mulholland Drive plays on us, introducing us to the main character’s subconscious before we see them as they actually are, thereby blurring the lines between the identities of its core characters. Lynch’s recurring symbol of the key unlocking the entrance to one’s darkest temptations also manifests here in Enemy as an evil temptation, granting access to an erotic, underground club where Anthony indulges his sexual perversions.

Villeneuve shoots Toronto like an alien city with the hazy, yellow fog and sky.

Perhaps it is the way Enemy turns Toronto’s bleak, urban architecture into a labyrinth designed to ensnare Adam and Anthony though which most calls to mind Lynch’s warped vision of Los Angeles in Mulholland Drive. Both cities are overcome with a simmering darkness that draws out the worst of its inhabitants, but Villeneuve’s aesthetic here is very much differentiated from Lynch’s in its sickly, sepia tones, suggesting a dystopian decay more in line with David Fincher’s characteristic yellow lighting. In its striking long shots, this contaminated fog envelops the angular designs of Toronto’s towers, bridges, and roads, shaping an absurdist world of rigid inflexibility around the two men. When they aren’t gazing out windows that layer reflections of the harsh infrastructure over their faces, we often find ourselves simply in the grip of Villeneuve’s suspenseful filmmaking, silently watching characters stalk each other through the eerie city streets. And of course, above them we notice tangled wires stretched out like webs, as if spun by those spiders that haunt their dreams.

A web of wires hanging over the city and caught in glass reflections, ensnaring Adam and Anthony in its trap.

The descriptor “Kafkaesque is unavoidable with storytelling this absurdist, as the symbolic connections drawn between femininity and spiders resembles the horrific, physical transformation featured in The Metamorphosis. Of course, the view of women as venomous, emasculating creatures is all coming from inside Anthony’s head though, forcing him to withdraw into his infidelity where he ironically sees himself as a better, kinder person. As such, the real “metamorphosis”of Enemy does not manifest so much in the spider motif as it does in Adam and Anthony’s role reversals, slyly infiltrating each other’s lives and leaving associates none the wiser about which version of the man they are speaking to.

Hints of Kafkaesque bureaucracy in the rigid, oppressive design of these beautifully lit interiors. With the Franz Kafka comparisons in the narrative, a line of influence can similarly be drawn back to Orson Welles’ absurdist production design in The Trial, though toned down a little here.
Continuing the spider motif through this smashed car windscreen, its cracks spreading out like a web.

Up until the final act, Villeneuve’s narrative pacing is patient in its studies of both men, considering the parallels between their love interests, careers, and routines that only ever tangentially interact. With Anthony’s resolve though to sleep with Adam’s partner, Mary, Adam is conversely motivated to pose as Anthony in his home, and Villeneuve’s cross-cutting between both romantic encounters violently collides the two lives that were meant to remain separate. In the end, these disguises don’t remain intact for very long. Intimacy strips away all facades, and so just as Anthony’s volatile anger effectively destroys Adam’s life, so too does Adam’s gentle presence bring some much-needed healing to Anthony’s marriage, and his wife, Helen, doesn’t even seem to mind the switch. “Did you have a good day at school?” she casually asks, acknowledging that she is not speaking to her husband, but rather his alter ego.

Cross-cutting between the two sexual encounters, studying both sides of the psychological role reversal.

If we are to read these men as one and the same though, there is little hope that this change of heart will last long, especially with the key to the underground club waiting to tempt Adam into Anthony’s old lifestyle. The arachnid visions are clearly not gone either, but as one giant spider cowers in the corner of the room, we realise for the first time that these creatures have much more to fear from this man than the other way around. The nightmarish cityscape of Toronto that lives in his head may feel like it has wrapped him up in its paralysing web, and yet at the end of the day, it is his own psychological self-sabotage which keeps driving him through these familiar, destructive cycles.

The cryptic motif of spiders brings Enemy full circle – superb form in Villeneuve’s storytelling.

Enemy is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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