by Gerry McAuley
I had the chance to see a preview of Denis Villeneuve’s second collaboration with Jake Gylenhaal last Spring when the film was released in North America and Spain. It is testament to the film’s lasting impact on the viewer that I can write this review quite clearly many months later when it finally gets a general release.
I’m not expecting too many people in the UK to see it at the cinema because frankly it’s had minimal promotion; those that do venture out, however, will undoubtedly have a ‘Marmite’ reaction. I absolutely loved it, even if I don’t fully understand it. My other half hated it. This is a polarising film that you will argue over (and try to understand) for a long time. For that reason alone it’s worthwhile viewing but there is so much more that makes it significant.
Enemy is a psychological thriller that centres around two Gylenhaal characters: Adam, a solitary professor who seems to be frustrated by his monotonous life yet incapable of changing it, and Anthony, an aspiring actor who appears to be Adam’s exact physical doppelgänger. When he spots Anthony in a minor role in a movie, Adam becomes obsessed with tracking down his double.
I don’t want to give away anything further about the narrative as this is the key to the film’s success. Based on a Jose Saramago novel, Villeneuve’s direction always seeks to create ambiguity and prompt questions. You will find yourself asking what the hell is going on here on a number of occasions. And that’s what’s so fantastic in my opinion – this is challenging without straying into art-house bollocks, thrilling and puzzling and horrifying and brilliant and potentially rubbish all at the same time.
What I can say is that there is something unmistakably ‘off’ about the entire film. There is a cloying sense of a rotten core, a darkness just below the surface that continually threatens to expose itself fully before scurrying tantalisingly out of the viewer’s reach. No interpretation I have come up with fully satisfies. Currently there are two separate theories/explanations I’m subscribing to without being able to decide if they can be compatible or not.
There are two outstanding elements that prevent Enemy from becoming the aforementioned art-house bollocks. The first is Gylenhaal’s performance as the two protagonists. He brings tremendous variety and nuance to each so that they become distinct while hinting at hidden depths which make the film so enigmatically wonderful.
The second is Villeneuve’s direction – the pacing is measured (some might say slow) and the use of light and camera to create atmosphere is excellent. He’s confident enough to leave extended pauses between anyone speaking, interspersing the narrative work with lingering shots of birds flocking above the Toronto skyline. There is a feeling that everything is deliberate, every element of a shot carrying some kind of meaning that will be crucial when attempting to decipher this film afterwards (and that is what you have to do – probably with a second viewing) that is reminiscent of true masters of the genre like Hitchcock and Haneke.
That’s not to say that I think Enemy is on a par with either of their best efforts, just that Villeneuve is one of the outstanding up-and-coming talents in mainstream cinema. With Enemy the boundaries are pushed even though the experience also feels comfortingly familiar. This is a film that merits several viewings and animated discussions around the dinner table – I will be checking it out again myself with the hope that I can finally debate its meaning with people I know. It’s unusual to be able to say this about a film that’s just gone on general release but I can assure you that Enemy will stay with you for a long time, regardless of your opinion on it.
In trying to provide a conclusion to this review I struggled for quite some time to adequately capture my feelings, to provide a neat, short summary on what this film is or why you should watch it. Truthfully there isn’t any way to accurately convey how good this film is in a short written review. And that, in fact, is probably the best thing I could say.