September 29, 2014


Much of the oblique psychological thriller Enemy—starring Jake Gyllenhaal—is beautiful to look at. The film has a bleached, sunlit veneer that feels definitively Californian. It’s actually set (and filmed) in Toronto, but a Toronto that feels very much like Los Angeles. Visually, Enemy appears to have been lifted partly from Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s a subtle paranoia throughout the film, and thematically Enemy is a kind of “body snatchers” riff; and the music (especially in the first half of the movie) has echoes of Bernard Herrmann’s haunting Vertigo score. But unlike either of those films, Enemy amounts to little more than a grimly self-serious curiosity piece. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a history professor named Adam Bell who discovers that he has a doppelganger, an aspiring actor named Anthony St. Claire who has bit parts in several apparently direct-to-video movies. Anthony’s movies are something else, and probably the only clear joke of the film, with titles like Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way and Call Me L8er. They’re more like the bad, functional titles of sitcom episodes. And in each one, Gyllenhaal’s double has a classically clichéd bit part: man in lobby or man in taxi, or something like that.

What’s so hard to take is the sheer, inexplicable dread that each man feels for his double. In a film like Body Snatchers, we knew that behind the duplicates were aliens bent on extinguishing the human race. And in Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart’s fetishistic obsession was what gave the idea of the double a raw, intense horror. But no ideas of this kind are fleshed out in Enemy. And Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s a good actor and often a charming one on screen, doesn’t reveal anything about why these men are so freaked out about each other. His Adam Bell lives a pretty dismal, routine life as an academic, although he’s not a complete hermit like some scholars, enjoying the frequent visits of his lover (Melanie Laurent). And the actor Anthony St. Claire is living a seemingly charmed existence with his very pregnant wife (Sarah Godon) despite the fact that he hasn’t yet experienced a breakthrough as an actor. (How does he afford his nice apartment?) The movie never makes a case for why these men pose a threat to each other, but their hostility is intense and only increases throughout the film. (I suppose the very idea of a doppelganger is supposed to be seen as threatening enough to defy explanation. And that might be true in some cases, but the film could have just as easily explored the bizarre wonder that a phenomenon like this might inspire in two people, especially if the movie wasn't really going after the horrors of a Vertigo or a Body Snatchers type of story.)

The visuals in Enemy are almost always rich. There's a genuine tension to them. And yet, they fail to really build on each other. The film is visually lazy in a sense, perhaps a parallel form of the same blasé attitude that hinders its story and its logic. Instead, it merely exudes all of the quirky, eccentric qualities of an “indie” film. Case in point: the movie’s opening scene—in which Gyllenhaal (as the actor) attends a risqué backroom striptease act (in which the nude woman crushes a spider with one of her stilettos). That scene isn’t exactly clear, especially because we aren’t yet aware of the whole “double” component (unless we’ve read about the film prior). Then we meet Adam Bell, giving a lecture on the qualities of dictatorships. Why this particular subject? Is the director, Denis Villeneuve, trying to suggest an overarching theme here? Villeneuve doesn’t clarify much for us, although you feel that surely this talk, which is repeated later in a little montage sequence, must be relevant to the movie. 

But then, a movie doesn’t have to be completely lucid to be enjoyable, even marvelous. Months ago, we saw proof of that with the bonkers but mesmerizing Under the Skin, a movie that offered little in terms of plot or coherence, but was beautiful and captivating. Enemy tries to get that kind of response, but fails to do so, presumably because not even the director or the actors know what is going on in this film. Everyone is either confused or simply stoic, as if that bleached quality of the film had somehow seeped into the performances, the writing, the directing. 

Villeneuve directs as though he is unsure of how to respond to a very interesting premise. Finally one truly remarkable development comes when the men—so incredibly threatened by each other—ostensibly decide to Parent Trap their significant others, as a form of revenge on each other. It’s so weird and creepy that you don’t know exactly what to make of it. Perhaps it's the thrill of tricking one’s spouse, or maybe the curiosity of seeing if one of the girls will find out the truth. (One of them does, and when she asks Bell to stay, it’s all the more strange, and intriguing.) This one may warrant a second viewing after all, but as of now I'd classify it as too much of a missed opportunity.

With Isabella Rossellini as Adam’s mother. Scripted by Javier Gullón, from the 2002 novel The Double by José Saramago.

No comments: