We have met the enemy. Is he us?

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Opens Friday 14
3.5 out of 5

José Saramago’s obscure Portuguese novella The Double is the tale of a history professor who discovers he’s got a doppelganger, and sets out to find him. What follows is an existential nightmare in which man’s worst instincts are always a good bet to rule the day.

With subject matter like that, it’s no surprise that Denis Villeneuve (Canada’s hottest director these days) picked the challenging story as his follow-up to the commercially successful kidnapping drama Prisoners. Renamed Enemy for the screen, it’s his least accessible project to date, but he definitely makes it gripping. It’s a brief exercise — at 90 minutes, Enemy is easily the shortest movie in Villeneuve’s filmography — but one that exceeds expectations.

Along with a heightened profile in Hollywood, Prisoners gave Villeneuve a creative relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, a relationship that continues in Enemy. Gyllenhaal has never been a huge audience draw, but he’s got great taste. Here, he gets to push his limits in a double role, while trying to avoid the usual traps (like going over-the-top in one direction or another to establish the differences).

Professor Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal) is unraveling. Stuck in a rut at work and in a loveless relationship with a beautiful office drone (Melanie Laurent), Bell looks for an escape from reality at the movies. But instead of forgetting his troubles, he spots an extra that looks just like him. And not just a fleeting resemblance — a mirror image.

Against his better judgment, Bell decides to track down his twin, discovering that his name is Anthony Claire — and he’s in a far better place in life. Claire has money, he’s happily married and he’s about to become a father. The two agree to meet.

Shortly after, Bell gets cold feet and tries to cut off all contact, but Claire sees an opportunity to take a break from his own existence (particularly after checking out Bell’s gorgeous girlfriend).

Villeneuve is generally faithful to the novella, although he edges away from the notion of the evil doppelganger by dropping several clues that suggest a split personality may be at work here (Bell and Claire are definitely quite similar, except when it comes to morality), but without providing any certainties. Bell approaches the situation first, but tentatively. Claire finds out later, but immediately seizes the opportunity and pushes his double into a corner.

There’s also a subplot involving a sex dungeon of the kind that only exists in movies like Shame and Irreversible. It provides a key piece of information, I guess, but otherwise it’s pretty much the definition of overkill. Compared to Villeneuve’s plot-heavy previous efforts (Incendies, Polytechnique, Prisoners) Enemy is downright lean, but also hints at a whole new universe — not to mention a brand-new round between those perennial contenders, chaos and order.

The film is barely coloured, overwhelmed by an all-pervading amber light, and the massive spiders (yup) strolling across Toronto underline the dreamy atmosphere. Their presence is hard to explain. Are they just a flight of fancy, or a critical element in any effort to understand the doppelgangers’ journey?

Beats me. But either way, Enemy is one of the best flicks the Canadian industry has put out in quite a while.