Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Ode to Cronenberg by Way of Saramago

(Denis Villeneuve, Spain-
Canada-US, 2014, 90 mins.)

If a reporter were to ask random people on the street to name the individual who scares them more than anyone else in the world, they would be likely to receive a wide range of responses, from movie monsters to brutal dictators, but it's unlikely that anyone would point to themselves and say, "Me." Yet that's the premise with which French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve begins this psychosexual thriller, a loose adaptation of José Saramago's 2002 novella The Double.  

A bearded Jake Gyllenhaal, who appeared as a dogged detective in Villeneuve's suburban-set Prisoners, plays both of the central characters, starting with Adam, a disheveled history professor in Toronto (for once, the city plays itself). He has a decent job and a pretty blonde girlfriend, but something isn't quite right; he has trouble maintaining focus in class and his relationship with Mary (Beginners' Mélanie Laurent) seems a little perfunctory, though it's hard to say if there was ever any real heat there.

One afternoon, a colleague recommends a local comedy he thinks Adam might enjoy--and the guy definitely looks someone who could use a laugh--but it has the opposite effect. While watching the video, Adam spots an actor in a bit part that looks exactly like him, and becomes obsessed.

He starts by figuring out the actor's name, and then he poses as Anthony to get more information about him. It's clear, at this point, that Adam has crossed a line, but he can't seem to help himself. He calls Anthony to ar-
range a meeting, but gets his pretty blonde--and pregnant--wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), on the phone instead. Since the men share the same voice, Helen thinks Anthony is playing a trick on her. Though her husband is initially reluctant, he eventually agrees to meet his doppelgänger. 

Villeneuve opened the film by depicting a private sex show in which a naked woman threatens to crush a brown recluse with her stiletto (for better or for worse, it plays like an outtake from Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut). Once Adam discovers his double, the spider imagery intensifies. Though the director and co-writer Javier Gullón added the creatures to Saramago's text, it works, not least because the special effects are convincing. 

Much of the rest of the film, however, feels more like an ode to the body horror of David Cronenberg, though some of these similarities may be more coincidental than not. Nonetheless, Villeneuve didn't just shoot in Toronto, he used locations that appeared in Stereo and possibly even Crash. He also called on Gadon, who appears in Cosmopolis and his son Brandon Cronenberg's first feature, Antiviral. Then again, it only makes sense to dip into Toronto's talent pool when filming in the city.  

There's also the distinctive look of the film—cold and clinical—and the tone—so humorless that it's humorous (DP Nicolas Bolduc created the washed-out palette in-camera rather than through post-production).  

Then there's the concept of doubling which powers Dead Ringers, though Villeneuve never reveals that Adam and Anthony are long-lost twin brothers, but he leaves the possibility open, since they both have a scar on their abdomen. As with Jeremy Irons before him, Gyllenhaal has to pull off two roles or risk sinking the film. He does, and that helps to keep it afloat. If anything, he gives a better performance(s) in Enemy than he did in Prisoners in which he played an intriguing, if underwritten character. 

[spoiler space]

Not to give too much away, but I think the solution to the mystery lies in Cronenberg's adaptation of Patrick McGrath's Spider, in which Ralph Fiennes sees a whole lot of things that aren't there. The very title of that book and film seems like a dead giveaway, particularly in light of Enemy's surfeit of spiders, but Villeneuve's bizarre Walker Brothers-scored ending is tantalizingly inscrutable. As a longtime Cronenberg fan, I should probably be offended, except the Torontonian has been moving away from body horror for awhile now, so it was actually kind of enjoyable to see someone else pick up the mantle--at least for the length of one film

Enemy opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown and Sundance Cinemas on Mar 21. 


  1. I find your interpretation to the film intriguing but I the theme of repetition and duality more revealing than anything found in any of Cronenberg's work. Anthony isn't so disturbed by the possibility of a doppelganger. Adam sees a darker, more narcissistic version of himself. He must confront him before he is able to go back to Helen. Repeating trysts is something that Adam/Anthony struggle with internally.

    It's uncertain as to whether these are two people or just one. Both interpretations are reasonable to me. And it's that theme that's explored. We sincerely desire a stable, domestic, nurturing relationship. But it's also not ALL we want. Coming to terms with that, is harder for some than others.

    The spider, to me, is the world of illusion. The sex life of Adam is mechanical. But the enticement of the unknown, the titillation of having a key to the illicit and the forbidden is a powerful lure that is ultimately destructive.

    I'll have to watch it a few more times once it comes out on DVD but that's the impression I got from it.

  2. I understand where you're coming from, though the schizophrenia solution makes the most sense to me, especially when Adam's mother makes it clear that she only has one son--who's dabbled in acting--but I think Villeneuve hoped viewers would posit multiple readings. The solution is more clear-cut in Saramago's novella, since the men are separate individuals (twins, if I'm not mistaken).