There are countless films out there that deal in adultery – pick pretty much anything at random and there’s likely a bit of secret sex going on. And that’s usually the thing; it’s employed, often a little cheaply, as motivation for all kinds of plot-advancing shenanigans, from murder, to burglary, through fist fights, shootouts, bloody revenge – the lot. Infidelity is at the ground floor of many a narrative structure and for the characters, more often than not, it’s all about the sex.
Here, in his follow up to the tense but overlong two-hander Prisoners (2013), Denis Villeneuve presents the psychological perspective and it’s a refreshing take on an age-old trope. Enemy is relatively low on plot (and sex, come to think of it), and is more than just a riff on the doppelgänger motif; it charts the breakdown of one man’s existence when it splinters into two separate lives. (At least that’s how I saw it.) What happens to the mind of a man cheating? How does he consolidate two opposing existences? Not easily, it appears.
Gyllenhaal, blinking decidedly more than the last time you saw him in Nightcrawler, and teaming up again with the Canadian writer/director (which was made before but released after Prisoners), delivers a split performance oddly reminiscent of Adaptation.‘s Charlie/Donald Kaufman. And like that film, archetypal milquetoast tackles archetypal shark, playing out to surprising ends. But with Enemy, as the title suggests, it’s far more sinister.
Based on Nobel prize winner José Saramago’s 2002 novel O Homem Duplicado (The Duplicated Man, or The Double), Villeneuve’s adaptation is shrouded in a beguiling menace, striking a thematic, dreamlike note somewhere between “Eyes Wide Shut” and “The Machinist”. History professor Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal #1) journeys into a murkier world than his repetitive but at least well-lit lecture hall when he decides, on recommendation of a colleague, to watch a DVD late one night in his spartan apartment. Finishing the film he shuts the lid of his laptop little impressed and goes to sleep. But Adam wakes in the night, compelled to revisit the DVD, remembering something strange about it in his dream. He plays the film again, skipping through to solve the nagging question in his head. Did he see himself in the hotel scene? Here, we are led to believe, begins the split.
“It was Hegel who said all the great world events happen twice,” Adam tells his students (presumably not for the first time), “and then Karl Marx added: the first time it was a tragedy, the second time it was a farce.” There are few laughs to be had by the time Adam seeks and finds the name of his ‘double’, Anthony (Gyllenhaal #2), online. Bumbling, detached Adam hasn’t got much else going on it seems, apart from some repeating history lectures and the routine, angry sex with his muted girlfriend Mary (Laurent) – each adding only sourness to his existence. He’s not ‘satisfied’, that much is clear. So what the hey. Adam sneaks into Anthony’s agent’s office, calls his apartment a couple times, all the while becoming accidentally obsessed and increasingly confused – and all with good reason.
Anthony, it turns out, is borderline: a slicker, apex twin of Adam. By the time we’re properly introduced we’ve learn some unsavoury facts about Anthony’s past, his pastimes and his relationships. He’s married to Helen (Gadon) with a baby on the way. When Adam starts calling and confusing the situation, Helen becomes suspicious that he’s been cheating again. It’s not long before Anthony’s up to much worse, with Villeneuve cranking up the tension on a tetchy score.
The dreamlike developments trade effectively on the film’s surface confusion. Logically, judging by his dreams, Adam and Anthony are more familiar with each other than they think. All is and is not what it seems. Where Enemy departs from the familiar theme of infidelity is presenting these two lives as concretely separate and the relationships unconnected. It’s uncanny – the plot, though seeming familiar, deviates still from the standard trajectory, employing a nightmarish filmic language, building on its themes nonverbally and contradicting it in dialogue.
Villeneuve is aware his audience is wise to well-worn twists (and creates a truly startling final shot), but he rushes to the finish. For a picture that’s assembled with such precision, one event in the third act is the piece’s only weakness. Still intriguing is Villeneuve’s deft blurring of perspective (which half of the pair are we watching?) with Adam/Anthony’s mother (Rossellini) appearing to reveal clues. Perhaps she is the key to the entire piece.
Anthony’s told: “You’re not a man, you’re nothing.” Direct references to history, control and totalitarianism may present a dual meaning: at what cost does a man retaliate against his transgressor? Anthony is determined to destroy his softer other while Adam himself rises against aggression and surprises himself.
Remarkable too is Enemy’s confident pacing. It’s a relentless chokehold of a film chock full of heavy symbolism becoming almost wilfully impenetrable and encouraging (aptly) a second viewing. Interpretation seems very much Villeneuve’s intention and simple answers there are not. Fidelio as many have interpreted Eyes Wide Shut, may not be the password here – Adam/Anthony’s dissatisfaction runs deeper than a lack of commitment. There aren’t very many solutions offered up to this male type’s conundrum of relationship ‘control’, or his loss of masculine identity. “It’s a pattern. It repeats”, as Adam says to his class. Though Enemy may suffer from a somewhat weak final act, with its final shot the cycle begins again. It repeats. And with this Villeneuve adds a different dimension to the simple cheating husband – and for once it isn’t just about the sex.