The Toronto in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is always covered in a thick, oppressive layer of smog, making the otherwise beautiful city feel eerie and uninviting. Aerial shots reveal a city under constant construction; the numerous tall buildings create a lonely place where you can easily get lost or go unnoticed. Despite the gorgeous shots of the streetcars, Toronto hasn’t looked this uninviting on screen in a while. Then again, much of the film takes place in the suburbs. It’s in such a place that two loathsome, self-absorbed men who share the identical physique of Jake Gyllenhaal — one pathetic and one predatory — live without knowledge of one another.
We first officially meet Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a lonesome history professor who works in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb, but lives in downtown Toronto. His dank apartment, shot in yellowish hues, is as uninviting as the set of Pinter’s No Man’s Land: there’s only one chair, one stool at the counter, and no decorations. Adam spends his nights here, grading papers, and having unenthusiastic sex with his blonde girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent). She could be mistaken for a prostitute on first look given scarcity of intimacy in their relationship. There’s something off about his apartment, not just that it’s so distasteful, but that it’s too much of a dump for a well-paid professor. Why does Adam live in the middle of the city, forcing him to commute daily, if he’s going to choose such a depressing place to inhabit?
When Adam watches a movie recommended by a colleague, he discovers that his doppelganger, Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal), has a bit part in the film. This sets him off on a quest to follow and find out more about Anthony. Although hardly a successful actor, Anthony is in many ways Adam’s opposite: married, well dressed, inhabiting a luxurious suburban apartment, and expecting a child. But they both share similar issues with women – their women are largely loosely sketched objects rather than flesh and blood – and identical bodies, right down to the same scar on the torso.
Part of the fun of the film is trying to figure out why this is. Are these really two separate men or are they two sides of the same coin: the same man? Villeneuve keeps us off-balance from the get-go: the first scene of the film depicts Gyllenhaal heading into an exclusive and creepy sex club, full of naked ladies, spiders, and lascivious, salivating men. It’s stylishly and strangely shot – the first official pronouncement that the film will be something of an art film – which makes it ambiguous whether it’s reality or a dream, and it’s unclear which Jake Gyllenhaal is present here.
Gyllenhaal does a remarkable job of differentiating between the two men in his performance. Anthony stands straight and speaks deliberately and commandingly; Adam slouches in looser-fitting clothing, often sounding uncertain. Yet much like the largely two-dimensional characters in Prisoners, the other Gyllenhaal-Villeneuve collaboration which was actually shot after Enemy though released first, neither man amounts to more than a few affectations. When the more aggressive Anthony decides to insinuate himself in Adam’s life – he wants an opportunity to screw Mary – Adam take the opportunity to inhabit Anthony’s life. The psychological thriller thus turns inwards, ostensibly exploring identity at the expense of plot, but there’s only so far that the film can go with such hollow characters.
Villeneuve chooses his imagery carefully, so that even a seemingly pedestrian shot will eventually take on meaning: the criss-crossing streetcar cables are mesmerizing, but their significance is not initially apparent. This makes for an effective and enticing puzzle, full of suspense. You’ll find yourself still turning this over, putting the pieces together, days after the film. But even once you make all the connections, there’s no real human insight. It’s all style – and what wonderful, skillful style it is – with little substance. Villeneuve would have done better to have more matter with less art.
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