As a rather astute reviewer over at The Playlist observed, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) was the best thing to ever happen to Jake Gyllenhaal’s career. The much-hyped studio blockbuster was a commercial and critical failure prompting the actor to take stock of his career. He began working with directors that thought outside the box (Duncan Jones) and films that subverted their genres (End of Watch). This deliberate decision to turn his back on mainstream movies in favor of more challenging fare culminated with Enemy (2013), a psychological thriller by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. With a storyline that involves a man discovering he has a doppelganger, which leads to their lives intersecting in ways that threatens their very existence, Enemy invokes the Harlan Ellison short story “Shatterday,” and, in particular, its adaptation that aired on the mid-1980s anthology television show, The New Twilight Zone. While Villeneuve’s film exists very much in the thriller genre, there is a pervasive feeling of dread and unease reminiscent of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) that sees Enemy crossover into the horror genre.
An ominous vibe is established right from the get-go with shots of the Toronto skyline enshrouded in smog through a sickly yellow filter coupled with a menacing, minimalist score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans that puts you immediately on edge. College history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is teaching a class about how dictatorships work, which he claims, among other things, involves a repeating pattern that keeps the population busy through lower education, entertainment, limited culture, and censoring information as well as any kind of self-expression. In a way, his life is that of a self-imposed dictatorship as he repeats the same routine – he teaches his class, has dinner with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent), they have sex, and she leaves. It’s a rather banal existence that includes residing in a non-descript apartment among one of many similar-looking buildings. Adam is clearly stuck in a rut and in need of a change.
A fellow teacher (Joshua Peace) strikes up a conversation one day and the man recommends a film for Adam to watch entitled, Where There’s A Will There’s A Way. He watches the movie and notices an actor that looks exactly like him! Intrigued, Adam looks the man up online and finds out that his name is Daniel Saint Claire a.k.a. Anthony Claire, a struggling actor in a troubled marriage with his pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon). Soon, Adam’s obsession with Anthony affects his work and his personal life as he decides to make contact with the actor. At first, he thinks Adam is nothing more than a stalker, but is soon intrigued by this person who sounds exactly like him and arranges a face-to-face meeting. Pretty soon their respective worlds unravel as they dangerously dabble in each other’s lives.
Enemy gives Jake Gyllenhaal a chance to show his range as an actor as he starts off by portraying Adam and Anthony as two men that lead very different lives. The former is a slightly depressed professor while the latter is a confident actor. Gyllenhaal not only relies on wardrobe to differentiate the two men, but also in the way they carry themselves. Adam adopts a kind of defeated posture complete with slightly hunched shoulders while Anthony is self-assured in the way he moves around a room and interacts with his wife. This culminates in the scene where the two men first meet each other and the reaction shots Gyllenhaal gives as Adam and Anthony scope each other out is fascinating to watch. After that meeting, things change dramatically as their identities begin to blur together.
There’s a definite Lynchian vibe with technology portrayed as a menacing presence, the city as a claustrophobic hell and the use of darkness reminiscent of Lost Highway as Adam is sometimes framed in his dimly lit apartment or appears and disappears into the shadows. There is also a perverse streak that manifests itself in a subplot in which Anthony belongs to an exclusive, Eyes Wide Shut-esque sex club that we are teased with early on as a beautiful woman allows a dangerous-looking spider to crawl up her leg. This scene also introduces an unexplained recurring arachnid motif that climaxes with the startling last image of the film.
Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve read Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s novel The Double and it inspired him to make Enemy. He was working on another film at the time and hired a screenwriter to adapt the novel. Eventually, another writer by the name of Javier Gullon came on board and wrote a draft with the director. Villeneuve had the daunting task to find the right actor who could play two different characters that looked the same. He saw Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko (2001) and felt that he would be “willing to do strange things,” and marveled at how strong he was in Brokeback Mountain (2005) – two qualities he was looking for in Enemy.
He heard that the actor was available and sent him the screenplay with a manifesto describing what he wanted it to be and how he planned to make it, which intrigued Gyllenhaal. The actor invited Villeneuve to drinks in New York City. While talking over glasses of wine, a woman approached them and claimed that her son looked exactly like the actor. Gyllenhaal thought that this encounter would make a good premise for the film. The two men discovered that they shared similar artistic sensibilities and hit it off.
Villeneuve was looking for a specific urban landscape that was “spreading forever.” He felt that most big cities in North America, like New York, had been overshot, but not Toronto, which had mostly been used to double for other metropolises. He ultimately chose to film in Toronto because it had the “kind of claustrophobic oppressive environment” he was looking for and had some of the same identity issues as the protagonist: “When we were shooting, there were moments you could feel like you were in Sao Paulo or Hong Kong of anywhere. Culturally, it’s pretty extraordinary … and I think that question of identity, in an interesting way, is at the heart of Toronto itself,” commented Gyllenhaal. The distinctive yellowish color scheme came out of a “feeling of sickness, a feeling of nausea, a feeling of discomfort, feeling of paranoia, fear” that Villeneuve got from reading the novel. They were originally going to add CGI smog to the outdoor scenes, but there was so much actual pollution the summer they shot in Toronto they didn’t have to add anything!
Filming had a very loose vibe to it with some takes lasting 20 minutes. In order to create the “artificial world” of the film, Villeneuve needed enough time to work with the actors and allow them to improvise “in order to create sparks of life in front of the camera,” he said in an interview. In the scenes where Gyllenhaal plays opposite himself, computerized motion control technology was used so that any camera moves could be duplicated exactly. The actor would perform half the scene, consult with Villeneuve about which takes were the best to use, change outfits, and shoot the other side with audio playback in a tiny earpiece.
As often happens with doppelganger stories, the other person’s identity begins to eclipse that of the protagonist. Adam begins to question his existence and becomes rightly paranoid of Anthony who starts to take a disquieting interest in the professor’s life. Adam is a slightly sympathetic man that lives in fear of Anthony who is an amoral opportunist. The director does an excellent job of gradually building tension as Adam and Anthony meddle in each other’s lives and there’s an almost tangible feeling of impending doom as the film progresses. What is also interesting is how the existence of these identical-looking and sounding men affects the women in their lives in disturbing ways. Both Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon do a nice job of showing how their respective characters gradually sense something amiss about their significant others.
Enemy examines the notion of identity and what happens when what makes you unique is no longer the case. How do you deal with the knowledge that there is someone out there that looks and sounds exactly like you? How does that affect the way you live your life? Villeneuve’s film wrestles with these questions and offers no easy answers, leaving it up to the viewer to figure things out. As he said in an interview, Enemy is “designed to be a puzzle … to be an enigma … You’re supposed to be disoriented. The way we tried to do it, it’s supposed to be an exciting disorientation, not a frustrating one.” Or, as his leading man put it, “To me now, when people go What the fuck? I love that response. And this is a movie like that.”
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Suskind, Alex. “Jake Gyllenhaal Talks the Duality of Enemy and Why He Wants You to Be Confused.” The Playlist. March 11, 2014