Twins, Spiders and Confusion: Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Enemy’

Enemy header

This last year’s certainly been a busy one for Denis Villeneuve, the local filmmaker who turned heads with films like Incendies and Polytechnique, and recently seems to have had a successful Hollywood debut with Prisoners. You’d think that now that he has the likes of Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal on his rolodex, he’d be going for more populist fare, but you’d also think a movie about a guy finding out he has an identical twin would have no less than three giant spiders in it, and you’d be wrong on both counts.

Despite his recent Hollywood trip, Villeneuve isn’t ready to turn his back on the weird, the experimental and the thought-provoking and Enemy is proof of that. Gyllenhaal stars as a college history teacher with a miserable, unfulfilling life (apart from the fact that he seems to be dating Melanie Laurent) who discovers a man with his exact face living what seems to be a much better life as the wealthiest, most well-off struggling actor in history. As Gyllenhaal makes tentative contact with his twin, the dull monotony of his life begins to unravel as the mystery deepens.

Enemy posterGoing off that description alone — which isn’t much more than what you’ll find on the back of the box — you probably wouldn’t expect much from Enemy, which will no doubt make it all the more shocking when you’re confronted with a bizarre mashup of Lynch, Cronenberg and maybe even a bit of Kafka for good measure. Actually, what it feels more like to me is some kind of Eastern European horror/thriller, something like Borgman, maybe. The camera work is all stark, slow pans over impossibly sterile and uncomfortable looking rooms, all tinted a greasy yellow and set to slowly wailing violins.

It’s this atmosphere, this decidedly un-Hollywood tone that really sucked me in to Enemy, lulling me into a dazed confusion as I gaped at the cinematography while trying to figure out A) what it all means and B) where it could possibly be going next. And while I did receive an answer on B, I get the sense I’ll be working on A for quite some time.

Make no mistake, Enemy is a confusing, puzzling thinker of a movie. The first time you watch it, odds are you won’t have a single damn clue what you just saw and the especially jarring ending will probably throw some people so far for a loop that they’ll just write the whole experience off as a dream they had or an absinthe hallucination or something. But I’m telling you, stick with it. Maybe watch it a second time and consider it. Chew it over like a good piece of steak. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit on something and get a sense of what it all meant.

I don’t really want to discuss too much of the weirdness and plot happenings later in the film here, though, because I think this is really the kind of movie you need to just go into without any expectations to get the full experience. Even if none of it actually means anything — which is a possibility we should always consider — it’s an interesting enough experience just for the mood and the atmosphere of the thing that it’s still worth watching even if it’s really just 90 minutes of Villeneuve messing with us for shits and giggles.

On a purely technical side of things, the film is various shades of drop dead gorgeous to look at, owing mostly to local cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, who has the kind of skill that can even make the Toronto skyline look interesting, which in my books is nothing short of some kind of Alchemy that we should probably consider burning him as a witch for. I know I keep returning to the Eastern Europe thing, but it really does look like it came out of a trendier section of Denmark or something, all looming apartment blocks full of the kind of immaculately designed interior decorating that ensures it looks as least like somewhere you’d want to live as possible.

Enemy insert

And honestly, I can’t think of much else I can really say about Enemy without getting too into what I think it really means and is trying to say. It’s the kind of movie where I’ll probably still be working on my feelings on it and my actual interpretation of it for a while. For now I’m still in the stage where my gut reaction to it is closer to a nonverbal “huh….” than anything involving punctuation or syllables. This makes it one of the more interesting kinds of movies to watch, but the harder to review, at least in a column that’s trying to remain spoiler-free and not get bogged down with heavy analysis and interpretation.

How much I actually like it is something I’m gonna need some time to figure out and, in a way, that’s the best thing I can say about the movie. It resists easy categorization and assessment, purely through its own depth and complexity and utter refusal to hold the audience’s hand, film geeks included. This very well may mean a lot of people will hate it, being more used to having everything spelled out for them. Enemy doesn’t spell a damn thing, and if you show it a chalkboard or even some magnetic fridge letters and ask for a little help, the odds are it will throw them back in your face. “Can you at least explain the spiders?,” whimpers the viewer. Enemy‘s only answer is a cold stare, and the invitation to figure it out for themselves.

Few enough movies, especially in the North American film scene these days, are willing to ask that of their audiences. If nothing else, Enemy deserves more than a little praise for going against that trend.

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *