Enemy: Double Life of Jake Gyllenhaal

enemy_posterQuebec Director Denis Villeneuve is a major talent to watch, having made the Oscar nominee “Incendies,” the high-profile, star-driven “Prisoners,” and now “Enemy.”  The only thing common to all of these pictures is their one-word titles (a coincidence?) and, more importantly, sharp intelligence evident in conception and execution.
Reteaming with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who gave a career-high performance in “Prisoners” (so did that film’s nominal star, Hugh Jackman), Villeneuve has cast Gyllenhaal in his most demanding film to date, in which he plays not one but two parts.
World-premiering at Venice and Toronto Film Fests in the same month, “Prisoners” are “Enemy” are vastly different films.  Initial response to “Enemy” was that it is confusing, frustrating and inconclusive, especially in its unusual ending.  I did not feel any of those reactions, instead viewing the film as hauntingly disturbing and an estimable panel, added to the growing genre of literary and cinematic exploration of the doppelganger, or the double.

enemy_2_gyllenhaalGyllenhaal plays the double role of an indecisive history teacher who discovers he bears a troubling resemblance to a would-be actor. The physical similarities are shocking because they even include a scar on the chest, which the director returns to. The notion scares both men, causing them to engage in deadly cat-and-mouth game, and on one level, “Enemy” is effective as a psychological thriller that would make Hitchcock proud.

enemy_7_gyllenhaal_laurentThe tale is an adaptation of the novel “The Double,” by Nobel prize-winning writer Jose Saramago.  The previous cinematic rendition of Saramago book, Blindness was a failure, due to the misconception and mediocre execution by the otherwise gifted Fernando Mereilles (better known for “City of God”).

 

The new film is defined by strong existential overtones, which recall the work of other writers, and the dark, often creepy tone sends you back to Kafka and even more so to David Cronenberg, Villeneuve’s Canadian colleague, who explored the double issue in the superb “Dead Ringer,” starring Jeremy Irons in his best performance to date, playing two highly disturbed gynecologist siblings.

enemy_4_gyllenhaal_gadonThe original and unconventional (to say the least) Enemy” was shot before “Prisoners,” which is more accessible and commercial. Both films were shown within two weeks apart in film festivals, indicating an ambitious director who aims high and who is determined not to repeat himself.  With the assistance of the studio’s marketing, Prisoners was a hit, generate positive reviews and emerging as a possible Oscar contender.  “Enemy,” in contrast, is a more unsettling and disturbing, which may explain why it is distributed by the smaller, entrepreneurial company, A24.

Seen from the perspective of mainstream cinema, the scribe Javier Gullon has deliberately shaped an enigmatic screenplay, full of unresolved ambiguities and unrelieved psychological tension, which is understandable considering that the movie is dealing with such complex ideas of ego and super-ego, duality and identity, the conscious, subconscious and unconscious.  I have no doubts that he is knowledgeable as far as Freudian psychology and Lacanian psychoanalysis are concerned.

enemy_3_gyllenhaal_laurentShrewdly, and out of respect for both the integrity author of the source material and the intelligence of the potential spectators, Villeneuve’s scenario relies more heavily on images and sounds rather than words and dialogue.  This strategy is also necessary as each of the two men played by Gellenhaal spends a good deal of time by himself, both alone and isolated.

The strange atmosphere is established from the establishing shot, a pan over the skyline of Toronto, a smog-shrouded city, and the camera zeroing in on a huge, impersonal apartment complex. In a visually stunning, dreamlike opening scene, we observe a bearded man (Gyllenhaal), Adam Bell, joins others in an underground club, known for its live sex theater.

In his ordinary life, Adam is a history professor teaching at a big university; we are not sure how good a teacher, or how committed he is to his metier and students. He is also strange while dating and bedding Mary (Melanie Laurent, the French actress from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), his appealing girlfriend.

enemy_1_gyllenhaal_laurentHe begins to change, when he rents a silly romantic comedy and notices an actor in a bit part who looks like him. Bemused, Adam takes down his name from the credits and tracks his phone number. Recognizing his voice, Helen (Sarah Gadon of Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis”), who takes the call, believes it’s her husband, Anthony St. Claire. Later, the insecure Helen accuses her husband of having an adulterous affair, but she is curious too. Tracking down Adam, she finds for herself the extent of their resemblance. The two women share some physical attributes, but they are not doubles; Helen is pregnant.

Are the two men identical twin brothers, unbeknownst to them? There is a difference, however: the one who doesn’t like blueberries has a dominating mother (Isabella Rossellini), while the other’s mother is unseen.

It’s always a pleasure to observe a handsome star grow and develop as a dramatic actor, and such is the case of Gyllenhaal, who began his career as a boyish, sexy and cute guy.  Sporting a beard, Gyllenhaal skillfully creates two different personas: The quiet, repressed Adam and his more extrovert sex-obsessed biker double.

When we left the press screening, my female companion said she detected a note of misogyny as neither man is a sensitive or responsive partner to the significant woman in his life.  I listened to her charge but disagreed, as for me, the focus of this admittedly strange and surreal tale was about fusion of male identities and personalities and the whole complex notion of metamorphosis.

All I can say is that, based on the ominous images, largely oppressive tone, and heavy ultra-modern score, “Enemy” has lingered in my memory days (and weeks) after the screening, which not many movies do, even the serious and well-crafted ones.

I don’t want to oversell this intriguing, perhaps unfathomable movie if you insist on rational and plausible explanations for every turn of events or personality change.  All I can say that the next two day, I revisited two films about duality and metamorphosis, both masterworks: Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 “Persona,” starring Liv Ullmann and Bibi Anderson, and Kieslowski’s 1991 “The Double Life of Veronique,” in which the lovely Irene Jacob (what ever happened to her?) played two vastly different women.

Credits

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriters: Javier Gullon, based on a book by José Saramago

Producers: M.A. Faura, Niv Fichman

Executive producers: Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Mark Slone

Director of photography: Nicolas Bolduc

Production designer: Patrice Vermette

Costumes: Renee April

Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans

Editor: Matthew Hannam

Running time: 90 Minutes