Somewhere between that spine-tingling sense of déjà vu and severe clinical paranoia lies the tone for Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, which draws its plot from José Saramago’s O Homem Duplicado – literally, “The Duplicated Man”.
The bleak, morose feel of Richard Ayoade’s doppelganger dark comedy, The Double, is here, but Enemy is less interested in the comic, and more concerned with some Orwellian sense of a society controlled by fear. Jake Gyllenhaal is Adam, a history professor of tragic isolation (despite a seemingly long-term relationship with Mélanie Laurent). Gyllenhaal is a masterful chameleon, and the reserved, introverted subtlety of Adam is as far from the seedy, electrically creepy Lou Bloom from Nightcrawler as you could imagine. The role is doubly juicy for the actor because – as the original title suggests – Adam meets his doppelganger (a charismatic actor named Anthony Claire) and Gyllenhaal of course plays him too. It’s a delicious role for any actor to play two contrasting figures – two sides of the same coin, to exhaust that cliché – within the same space, as Nicolas Cage demonstrated so aptly in Adaptation and Jeremy Irons did in Dead Ringers.
Adam first spies his apparent clone when watching a film on the recommendation of a colleague. It’s a double-take moment, and he pauses the screen to get a closer look. Immediately, as one might expect, he googles the actor in question and is flabbergasted to find that they appear to be exact carbon copies of each other. But the story doesn’t end there for Adam. This isn’t going to become just some anecdote he tells to people at work (he doesn’t really talk to many people anyway). He becomes bent on tracking down this actor – this mirror – and seeing for himself whether they truly are identical. Adam has no plan, he has no grand vision of what he’s going to do when he finds Anthony, but he knows that this is something he has to do. He later explains to the actor what motivated him when they finally do meet: ever so simply, it was that he “needed to know”.
It’s a harrowingly entrancing scene when Adam and Anthony come face-to-face for the first time. Aside from sharing the same face, they have the same voice, they even have identical scars on their abdomen. It’s as if they were separated at birth, but they weren’t. They are a completely coincidental phenomenon. Anthony, hot-headed and lecherous, is elated by the prospect and wants to use this unique opportunity to arrange a sexual liaison with Adam’s girlfriend, Mary (pretending to be Adam). Adam offers little resistance and proceeds to break into Anthony’s apartment and lie with his girlfriend, Helen (Sarah Gadon). Adam isn’t interested in sex. He just wants to know what it’s like to live in another person’s shoes.
Villeneuve doesn’t get hung up on trying to tell us what Adam needed to know, or why he needed to know it so badly. Adam’s actions require no logical coherent trail of thought because he isn’t dealing with a logical coherent situation. We’re not supposed to just happen upon our doubles in the middle of our everyday lives. We’re not supposed to feel like there’s somebody else living in the exact same body that we are. We have grown up in a society that has repeatedly told us to value and accept our individuality, because we are all different. Clearly, our society is not one Villeneuve is interested in exploring – not literally, anyway.
The central irony is that Adam – a history professor, supposedly an expert on totalitatian governments – cannot see the web within which he entangles himself so deeply. He lectures about how totalitarian states execute their authority so well because they censor any means of individual expression. Isn’t that what’s happening to Adam? By encountering his doppelganger – his exact replica – he is now the furthest thing from “individual” a human being could be.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about this film without mentioning the ubiquitous spiders. Yes, spiders. They continuously crop up throughout the picture. At the beginning of the film, we see a naked woman on the verge of crushing a live tarantula with her stiletto. At another point, a monumentally huge spindly spider crawls across the Toronto skyline. These arachnids come and go with seemingly no purpose, and certainly no explanation. I won’t spoil the perplexing final shot, but yes – as you’ve probably guessed – it involves a spider. So why spiders? Are they a symbol of something? What do they represent? It’s probably got something to do with webs – metaphorically – and how Adam doesn’t realise just how sticky the totalitarian webs of his society are until he is well and truly stuck in them. In any case, the spiders make for an intriguing, if at times distracting, symbol.
When Adam, curious, subtly asks his mother (Isabella Rossellini) if he ever had a twin, she replies very assertively: “You are my only son, I am your only mother”. But this isn’t about mothers and sons. This isn’t about blood relations. This is about our relationships with strangers – people we have never met, people who we’d assume couldn’t be further from us. Villeneuve brandishes a society wherein to meet one’s identical double is not the most fascinating or bizarre thing to happen, but to be happy, to be self-contented and to have no desire to want to exchange places with and live for a moment as that double – that would be a very unusual thing indeed.