Thursday, April 09, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Enemy (2014)

(Watch out for spoilers)

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Enemy (2013), an intriguing and often disturbing adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel The Double (2002). 

The film, from director Denis Velleneuve involves -- on a surface level -- an introverted history professor named Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal) who makes the bizarre discovery that he has a doppelganger: an actor named Anthony Claire (also Gyllenhaal). 

As Adam grows more and more curious about the stranger who shares his face, he begins to make disturbing discoveries about him. 

For one thing, Anthony has cheated on his pregnant wife, Helen (Sara Gadon) more than once, and for another, Anthony not only looks like Adam, he has the same scar on his torso. 

They aren’t just alike, therefore, but duplicates, or, perhaps, mirror images.

When the two men finally meet, Anthony also proves to be Adam’s polar opposite in terms of temperament.  He is deceitful and dangerous.  

And worse, Anthony demands that since Adam has already met his wife, Helen (by chance, on campus), he deserves to spend the weekend with Adam’s girlfriend, Mary (Melanie Laurent). If Adam lets him do that, the two men can part, and never meet again, Anthony promises. 

Fearful for his life, Adam acquiesces.  And he doesn’t tell Mary about the switch.

But with his girlfriend gone for a weekend away with his exact duplicate, Adam decides to pay Helen a visit in Anthony’s apartment.

When Mary determines that Anthony is not Adam, she argues with him, and they both die in a car accident, leaving Adam to replace Anthony as Helen’s husband.

But the more things change for Adam, the more things stay the same...

One key to understanding Enemy and its sub-text involves the classroom lessons it features. 

At least twice during the film, Adam, a college instructor, is seen lecturing before an auditorium-sized gathering of students, a black-board behind him.  

Adam discusses, explicitly a “pattern.” 

He gazes at human civilizations throughout history and sees the same repeating truth; that free societies becoming increasingly controlled until they are dictatorships, ones owned and dominated by the elite and powerful.  

The entrenched power in these free societies, over time, limit culture, reduce spending on education, and curtail individual liberty.  

This is a pattern that repeats throughout history,” he notes.  “It’s about control.”

Almost immediately after audiences witness the disheveled Adam deliver that lecture once, he delivers it a second time (ostensibly to a different section) in the same classroom, without much variation.  

A powerful point is made visually here when Adam repeats his own words. Because Adam repeats his lecture on the “pattern,” it is impossible not to reflect that he is trapped in a kind of cycle or pattern of his own as well.  

But just as citizens in free societies tend not to be aware of the abrogation of their liberties over time, so does Adam fail to realize his place in the scheme of things.  

He too is trapped in a cycle, one that, as yet, is not entirely plain. To quote the film's opening card "chaos is order yet undeciphered."  

For Adam this means his life seems to falling into chaos when, in fact, the opposite is true. He is slowly beginning to decipher a new truth about himself, and his world.

Specifically, a viewing of the film “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way” (recommended by a co-worker) leads Adam to the discovery of his doppelganger, Anthony.  

The film reaches an apex of creepiness when this unsettling discovery is made. The realization occurs in a half-asleep daze, and there's a weird, dream logic to it.  

We wonder: has Adam discovered Anthony, dreamed up Anthony, or revived the memory of Anthony (and his very identity) from some past schizoid episode?

As he begins to learn about Anthony’s life, the film follows Adam through a modern metropolis (Toronto, I believe), and the viewer gleans a strong sense of a de-humanized, impersonal place.  

Many buildings feature reflective window glass panes, for instance, and they reflect only other buildings, other opaque structures. The people inside, and the realms they inhabit are not visible. There’s a strong sense, in all these sequences, of a colorless, life-less, unhappy place. The architecture seems to overwhelm the people, seems to outpace individuality. 

The movie poster, pictured at the top of this post, recognizes the importance of the urban landscape to Adam's psyche.  It casts a palpable shadow, or places a powerful weight, over his life, over his identity.

On a deeper level, and going back to that school-room lecture, one might suggest that Adam lives in a modern world (our world) in which culture and education are being bled dry by budget cuts, and personal liberty is being eroded (thanks to the surveillance state, and lack of privacy encouraged by the Web 2.0 age.) 

Accordingly, Adam“loses” the very thing that makes him special in the film: his identity. His individuality. 

As he loses freedom, and as society loses its knowledge of history (via education) and the arts (or culture), Adam becomes so unimportant as an individual human being that he finally encounters a man who, down to a perfectly-placed scar, is him. The very things that make him special to himself no longer matter. He has become part of a faceless, distinction-less herd.

If any of this seems familiar to you, it's because there is a strong Kafka-esque feel to the story vetted in Enemy. Adam wakes up one day not as a cockroach (as in The Metamorphosis [1915]), but as a person who has nothing and who is nothing. The world has taken away anything that could have marked him as different or notable. Anthony takes his girlfriend and takes his life without so much as a by-your-leave.  

The larger message (one in keeping with The Trial [1925] and Josef K’s plight) is that Adam is lost in an inhuman system where he has no freedom, and worse, no real value.

Leaving behind this complex socio-political reading of the film, it’s possible to gaze at Enemy in another, more overtly psychological way, and again, some of the symbols help audiences to do so.

For instance, throughout the film Adam is haunted by imagery of spiders, and spider-human hybrids. Seeing this, I again thought of Kafka, and the cockroach transformation in The Metamorphosis.

The first spider is seen early in the film. Anthony is visiting an underground sex club, and a spider is (a bizarre) part of one very kinky act.  

Later, we witness a naked woman with a spider’s head and compound eyes.  Adam sees her in a long, dark hallway.

 There’s even a bizarre shot of a giant spider astride the impersonal city I mentioned before.

Enemy's final shot, even, is a call-back to this nightmarish, grotesque imagery.  lovely, sweet Helen inexplicably goes silent in another room, and Adam goes searching for her.  

When he turns a corner, he sees not the pregnant woman he was expecting, but a giant, coiled spider clinging to the wall.

What does the spider mean, in context of the film’s story of doubling? 

It’s a little complicated, perhaps, but it also makes a kind of emotional or psychological sense. So, follow me, if you will, from the beginning.

Isabella Rossellini plays Adam’s mother in the film and her (thoroughly unpleasant and cruel) character gives up the game at one point, confusing Adam’s taste in food for Anthony's.  

What this slip-up means is not that there are twins in the film, but that Adam and Anthony are one in the same…a single person, perhaps undergoing some kind of schizoid experience.  

They share an important family photograph, for example.  Each personality has the same photo (of Adam/Anthony and his wife) in their separate apartments. 

They also share a scar, of course, and a nearly identical taste in women. Significantly, Helen and Mary could be doppelgangers too (though they aren’t).

What are to conclude, then?  

One possible answer is that Anthony is the part of Adam’s personality that can’t be faithful; can’t be true. He has cheated on his wife before, visited sex clubs, and is keeping an apartment and girlfriend in another apartment, on the side. 

And so when Mary realizes the truth (by noticing the shade of skin on his wedding ring finger...), she must eliminated by Anthony.  This is exactly what happens via (intentional?) car accident. 

So where does the spider fit in?

In general and historic terms, spider imagery has been interpreted in many ways. It has been, in many circumstances, considered feminine (!), representative of cunning, or even symbolic of the fact that we each spin our own fate (as a spider spins its own web). 

All those interpretations come into play here.  

The spider Adam sees is his bad behavior regarding women made manifest, the persistence of his lack of marital fidelity. Put another way, the spider is his illicit sexual desire.  

When Adam encounters the spider, it is explicitly a reminder of his life as aggressive Anthony, living by cunning and deceit.  For example, Adam unexpectedly encounters the spider at the end of the film because he has discovered a key to the underground sex club that Anthony visited, and he knows he won’t be able to resist the temptation to go.  

His wife -- trusting, beautiful, kind Helen -- is therefore replaced by the symbol of Adam's bad behavior: the spider.

The Anthony part of his personality will re-assert itself, and he will again act badly. That's what the film's final shot reveals, in hideous detail.  

Now, he may not intend to relapse into infidelity, but he is going to.  There will be many more “Anthonys” to intrude in Adam's life as he steps out on his wife, again and again.

In whatever way -- political or psychological -- one chooses to parse Enemy (2013), it is a remarkable and thoughtful film. 

An air of doom, of amorphous dread, hangs over the enterprise like a shroud.  We don’t always know precisely what we should fear, but we know something bad is going to happen.  In this manner, perhaps, the film’s form reflects its content. Adam learns that either his very identity is slipping away in a totalitarian state, or that he has become viscerally disconnected from his morality and responsibilities to his wife. 

Either way, the future bodes poorly for him.

Enemy is a challenging film -- obsessive, strange, and surreal -- but one entirely worth the journey, especially if you happen to be someone who appreciates visual symbolism, and isn’t seeking easy or direct answers to a mystery.  

The best way to approach Enemy is with an engaged intellect, and with the movie's own inaugural words. 

Images that at first may seem chaotic are strange are actually just order as yet "undeciphered."

I encourage you to decipher the film -- and its visual clues -- in your own way. 


  1. John, I think you are spot on in your observations. In fact, I think both perspectives are true simultaneously. Anthony's/Adam's illicit sexual pursuits are his way of escaping the totalitarian state, of breaking the mold, escaping the pattern he is expected to follow (in this example a faithful husband) and thus forming his own identity.

    The Spider standing over the city illustrates, in my mind at least, that we are all caught in its web. So it is no coincidence that part of the bizarre sexual act occurring at the sex club at the start of the film appears to involve stepping on the spider at the end. This represents the crushing of the totalitarian state. The illicit/deviant sex act (chaos) results in the destruction of the state, or at least what it stands for/needs to exist (order). Anthony's/Adam's sexual deviancy is his rebellion from the subjugation of the totalitarian state.

    The car crash and the spider in the bedroom, in my view, represents that the state ultimately catches up with him, and he is brought back in line. The rebel side of him, Anthony, is dead. And the Spider has now firmly entrenched itself in the bedroom, the site of the sexual acts which serve as the gateway to escape.

    Crazy twisted film, but certainly provides food for thought. The only negative comment I might have is that the soundtrack felt a bit heavy handed in the first half. It seemed to be leading rather than accompanying, but otherwise I enjoyed the film, in spite of the "icky" after taste it seems to leave. But maybe that's just my arachnophobia talking.

  2. Really enjoyed this film. We don't get as many movies that utilize all its parts to create not just a story and characters - but build on theme and atmosphere. The way shots are framed, the way the colors work in this film and even the score and sound effects all work together to not only create unease, but flesh out the themes. You need to absorb the all the elements to really get to the heart of the film. I love movies like this, and they are such a treat when they come around. Really great review!