Enemy -- An Enigmatic Puzzle with an Unsettling Imagery

                                  Canadian film-maker Dennis Villeneuve (“Polytechnique”, “Incendies”, and "Prisoners") has a penchant for dark tales, filled with dour characters. He moves his films in a clammy atmosphere, where the viewers are pulled into a state of imbalance. His latest psycho-sexual thriller, “Enemy” (2014) – based on the 2002 novel by Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago – is one of those head-scratching movies that evokes the feeling of watching a feature from David Cronenberg or Lynch. The film was shot, in 2012, before Villeneuve’s major-studio suburban serial-killer thriller “Prisoners” (2013), but got delayed to release. However, “Enemy” has won leading five prizes at the recent Canadian Screen Awards. On the surface, it is a mysterious doppelganger move, but the enigmatic screenplay and ungraspable ending (at least after watching it for first time) makes ‘Enemy’ not for all. The mystery here is encrypted inside symbolism, which can either make you praise it as a cinematic puzzle or curse it as an illogical drill.

                                 The film opens in a ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ like strip joint, where a bearded man joins other gentlemen and pensively watches over the live sex. Later, a nude woman walks in with a silver serving dish and reveals a fat spider. In the next scene, beneath the dark, sickly skies of Toronto, Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a history professor, is taking classes to inattentive students about the dictatorships (about ancient Rome) and recounts how history repeats itself. Adam lives in a shoebox apartment and regularly engages himself in a joyless sex with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent). He takes the same class about how history repeats itself and gyrates along the same dull existence. One day, a colleague suggests him a rom-com and Adam rents the film. The low-budget film doesn’t provide him any relief, but at one point Adam gets transfixed at the screen. He sees an extra actor, who looks exactly like him. He connects to the internet and gets the other guy’s personal history.

                               The guy’s name is Anthony St. Claire. Next day, he goes to the talent agency and picks up a package that is addressed to Anthony. Adam drives to his apartment and calls him. Anthony’s pregnant-wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers it and recognizes Adam’s voice as her husband’s. Later, when Anthony picks up the phone, he isn’t pleased to hear what Adam says. Anthony’s bristling talk in the phone makes Helen to ask whether he is having an affair. He brushes it off as if it’s an absurd question. On her own, Helen tracks down Adam and is shocked at the resemblance. Adam and Anthony finally meet one another in an inn and finds out they look alike in every physical regard, right down to the scars. "Maybe we're brothers," says Anthony. Adam asks advice from his mother (Isabella Rossellini). She vows that he is her only son. When Anthony starts to stalk Adam and his girlfriend things turn more enigmatic and gives us the feeling of a terrible dream.

                               Like “Prisoners”, this film also moves in the same humorless torpor, which may not attract many viewers. But, there are brighter moments for those who cherish darkness – like the spellbinding first sequence that may or may not be a dream. Scripted by Javier Gullon, the film slowly progresses from being an uneasy puzzlement to outright horror. Villeneuve and Gullon have said to have changed many things from the original novel, imparting a fresh, flexible spin. The script expects us suspends all our logical beliefs and metaphorical viewpoint. It allegorically touches upon the themes of identity, adultery, and ineffectual male aggression.

                               Villeneuve uses the impassive irrationality of David Lynch; Anthony’s subjective perversity evokes the style of Polanski; the psycho-sexual themes resonates the panache of Canadian auteur Cronenberg; and the mistaken identity is the forte of suspense master, Alfred Hitchcock. Incorporating all these different styles, Villeneuve, with a use of minimal dialogue, brings up a conundrum that gets lodged into the corner of our brain, asking us many questions. He uses hazy lighting and the camera movements are slow and inexorable. There is also no visual differentiation between Adam and Anthony as both of them are drenched in darkness. Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc’s sickly yellow color palette is reminiscent of Lars von Trier's The Element of Crime.”

…. Spoilers Ahead (those who haven’t experienced “Enemy”must skip the following paragraphs)...

                              The title”Enemy” may refer to the figurative quote: "You are your own worst enemy.” So, I believe Adam and Anthony is same person. But, who is real? And who is the mirror image? I think Anthony is the real person. He was once happily married to her, but has tarnished the relationship by some brief affairs. Anthony lives in a nice condo, whereas Adam lives in a dingy place. How could, Anthony – a small time actor -- who hasn’t even visited the talent agency offices for six months, could afford to live in such an apartment? Anthony takes the name of Adam (for more mysterious reason) and works as a history teacher. Helen may not have known her husband’s new identity. So, she looks shocked when he treats her like a stranger in front of the college. In the next scene, when she returns home from college and after telling about the encounter with Adam, Helen asks her husband, “What’s happening?” To which he answers, ‘I don’t know’, but Helen insists that “I think you know.” I think this interaction and the look on Helen’s face tells us that she knows Adam and her husband is the same person, but she doesn’t know why?

                             After Adam and Anthony’s meeting in “Breezeway Inn”, Adam – the professor – meets his mother. After assuring him that he is her only son, she finally says, “I think you should quit that fantasy of being a third-rate movie actor.” At some other point, she says that, “You have enough trouble sticking with one woman, don’t you.”  All this might touch upon the fact that there is only Anthony, who is working as history professor in the name of Adam. But, still what about the Mary character and the ending where Adam and Anthony change their places? I think there might have been a Mary like woman in Anthony’s past life. In the scene, where Anthony angrily cuts off the phone call from ‘Adam’, Helen asks who is on the phone. When he says, ‘it’s the same guy’, she doesn’t believe him and inquires, “Are you seeing her?”

                           Adam never talks with Mary in all those sexual encounters. They meet in an apartment, where aside from a bed everything is furnished. So, their affair is true, but we don’t know whether it is happening in real time. I think the things unfolded after the second meeting between Adam and Anthony (in Adam’s apartment) aren’t real – especially Anthony’s brief sojourn with Mary and the fatal accident. Anthony bundles up all his dark sexual thoughts and sends him on a journey with his now/previous mistress. In that way, he kills the unreal mistress along with his perversity. The final scene, where the news mentions about a fatal accident, could be of somebody else, because no detail is revealed. All this explanations, finally brings us to the importance of spider and the first scene.

                             The ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ like sexual gathering might be a secret cult with few selected members. All the members watching the sex show doesn’t seem to be enjoying it. They are watching it morbidly as if contemplating some meaning. The bearded man -- as we could see is Anthony (not his alter ego, because he wears the marriage ring in the fingers) – also seem ghoulish. Is this whole first scene real? Towards the end, the security guard in Anthony’s apartment says, “I’d love to go back. I heard that they have changed the locks and set out new keys.” And in the very final scene, Anthony/Adam tears up the cover, he picked up from the talent agency office, and looks surprised to see a key.

                             It makes us think that there really is a sex club and that the security guard is talking about gaining some kind of access to this club. The spider is a metaphorical reference to Anthony’s fear and perverseness. So, Anthony creates two extremes of himself: one is honest and quiet, but wooden in sex, while the other is arrogant and adulterous. He successfully kills the adulterous one in his mind and rejuvenates himself as Adam. According to Vedic philosophy, spider is referred for hiding the ultimate reality with the veils of illusion (thanks to Wikipedia). One hour into the movie, we could see a giant spider hovering over the city. So, it could be taken that Anthony/Adam’s illusion (the spider) have grown much bigger. After the accident, the broken windshield takes the form of a spider’s web, which might again confirm the illusory nature of that scene. The spider could also refer Anthony/Adam’s sexual obsession. If you see it that way, you can see that the spider is killed with that accident. However, the spider (lust) returns – this time taking a huge form -- as he takes the key and says to his wife, “Helen did you plan on doing something tonight, because I think I have to go out.” As a history professor, he always says, “History repeats itself” and so yeah, he takes the key and his personal history repeats. I think I am not very clear about the spider’s presence in the story, and there might be other good interpretations too. 

                             “Enemy” (90 minutes) metaphorically inquires into the modern masculinity and intimate relationships through a thriller framework. It gives importance to atmosphere and characters over the plot. If you don’t care about tailor-made results for a mysterious situation, then this film might reward you.  


Rated R for some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Great review... loved the way in which you have tried to unravel the mystery and suspense, thereby elucidating the proceedings for the uninitiated lot. You are absolutely spot on in your comparisons to Lynch, Cronenberg and Hitchcock. Enemy also reminded me of Joseph Losey's brilliant film called Mr. Klein.

Arun Kumar said...

@ Murtaza, thanks for comment. 'Enemy' definitely leaves us to ponder over lot of things. Now reading, Jose Saramago's "Double", which explores different themes from "Enemy" (only the basic plot seems to be the same). Btw, thanks for recommending "Mr. Klein." Haven't watched it.

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