That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)


Tuesday, March 18th, 2014 3:52 pm—Film

Enemy (Canada/Spain 2013, Mystery/Thriller), Writer: Javier Gullón; Director: Denis Villeneuve

If you read my Prisoners review, you’ll know how much I’ve been looking forward to the release of Denis Villeneuve’s subsequent film, Enemy. In anticipation, I read José Saramago’s novel The Double, on which the movie is based. This was my second exploration of a film adaptation of one of Saramago’s works, having read and seen Blindness. But unlike with the first experience, this time I had trouble getting through the book.

In writing Blindness, Saramago took liberties with punctuation (i.e., he didn’t use much of it), but it’s even more extreme in The Double, where he spends countless pages detailing inanities in a confusing, repetitive manner. All that made for a bit of a tedious read.

Still, The Double does delve into interesting ideas about identity, perception, purpose and our very existence. So it was worth exploring. But for me, those ideas were better presented in Villeneuve’s film adaptation than in its source material.

In Enemy, as with most film adaptations, the story is pared down from the novel, offering a leaner, and in this case meaner, version of events. (One minor but notable difference is the protagonist’s name: Adam Bell in the movie is Tertuliano Máximo Afonso in the book, a lengthy moniker that its bearer loathes and that is repeated in full every time the character’s name comes up.) Enemy cuts to the chase—even if that chase leads you in circles, after your own tail.

So what’s the movie about? Well, that’s a little complicated, but I’ll start with what happens in the movie. We’re introduced to Toronto-based history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who goes about his dreary, repetitive life, trapped in a cycle of routine lectures (on the ways totalitarian states keep people down), mundane sex (with his girlfriend, Mary, played by Mélanie Laurent) and restless nights. His pattern is shaken up when Adam rents a movie, on a colleague’s recommendation, and discovers an actor who looks just like him.

Adam tracks down the actor, a man named Anthony Claire (also Gyllenhaal), who already operates under a dual identity, having the stage name Daniel Saint Claire. Anthony’s exterior matches Adam’s, but his interior harbours a much darker side.

The men confirm that they are one another’s exact double, complete with matching scars. From there, things really start to unravel, particularly when the men swap women without consulting their partners (Anthony has a six-months pregnant wife named Helen, played by Sarah Gadon; interestingly, he’s also been absent from his acting career for six months—perhaps while embracing a teaching career as Adam?).

Enemy does more than tighten The Double’s plot points; it takes liberties with events, trimming some here, adding others there. But it hits all the unmissable points.

The film also nails the novel’s creepy tone, capturing the feeling of being caught up in the minutia of daily life, of endlessness, pointlessness and powerlessness. Capitalizing on the poignancy of the visual image, as opposed to the written word, Enemy’s cinematography depicts a bleak, dingy cityscape, one that’s yellowed out somehow, like faded images—relics of the past, or a history destined to repeat itself.

Beyond its cinematography, Enemy incorporates a visual metaphor and representation of The Double’s twisted surrealism and sense of being trapped in a web. From the low-angle shots of streetcar wires that hang over the city like spindles, to the appearance of actual arachnids (for example, at an elite sex club, where men stare vacantly as naked women release live tarantulas from captivity), spiders are a recurring symbol in the film.

I don’t want to break Enemy down too much, both because I want to avoid spoilers and because I should watch the movie a second time before trying to really analyze it—the film bears repeating. But it’s definitely not for a lack of material to explore. Enemy, like Drive, is another great candidate for a film essay. Its script is loaded with double meaning and leaves even more open to interpretation than does The Double (as far as I can tell, anyway).

Whereas the book treats the two men, Tertuliano and António Claro, as being quite separate, the movie drops hints that they may actually represent two sides of the same person. We’re given clear evidence that they are two different people, but there are also suggestions to the contrary, letting the complexity and ambiguity of the novel’s themes emerge from the cluttered prose to rise to the surface.

Then there’s the significance of changing the title from The Double to Enemy. The focus is directed away from the notion of a doppelganger and toward the threat it represents, but who is the enemy here—the state? the self?

And so on.

There’s a lot to uncover, and it all culminates in a staggering ending; the final shot is a total WTF moment (and another departure from the novel, although it does bring to mind a line from The Double: “… sometimes dreams do step out of the brain that dreamed them…”). But after the initial shock wore off, I found it to be perfectly fitting with Enemy’s themes, absurdity and apparent quest to get the neurons firing. A more conventional conclusion might have been clearer, but it likely would have felt trite or unsatisfying. As it is, Enemy keeps its viewers dangling, and I think that’s exactly what the filmmakers intended.

Enemy is an interesting study in the possibilities of moving from page to screen. And while its tone, cinematography and trippy dream sequences are reminiscent of the Davids (Cronenberg and Lynch), more than anything else, the artistic choices behind Enemy demonstrate Villeneuve’s own astonishing range; to go from Maelstrom to Incendies to Prisoners to this is quite incredible.

Enemy also features another of Villeneuve’s fantastic casts. Laurent, so great in Inglourious Basterds and Beginners, is in fine form. Gadon, who was excellent in A Dangerous Method, is at least as good in Enemy; her performance earned her a Canadian Screen Award for Best Supporting Actress. (Interestingly, Gadon was also one of the panelists for this year’s Canada Reads competition, defending Kathleen’s Winter’s book Annabel.)

As strong as the other actors are, the film rests on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, requiring him to do double duty as both protagonist and antagonist (or are they one and the same?). He’s more than up to the task, proving yet again that he’s one of the finest actors working today (see If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet).

With Enemy, Gyllenhaal also reinforces what a remarkable duo he makes with Villeneuve. I look forward to their next collaboration; what form it will take is anybody’s guess.

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For more on the great work of Denis Villeneuve, see my Kickass Canadians article.

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