If there is such a thing as “what the hellness” then Denis Villeneuve’s latest film absolutely has it. But then the French-Canadian does have form. With Incendies Villeneuve managed to turn the conflict in the Middle East into a thriller with a reveal that disconcerted and amazed. In Prisoners he made us feel bad for suspecting that a lank haired, stuttering, educationally subnormal Paul Dano was a paedophile, and then made us feel bad for cutting such an obvious wrong’un too much slack.
The tricks are more playful in this latest exercise in duplicity. As with Prisoners, Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal, this time as Adam, a history professor who suddenly spots his spitting likeness in a movie he’s watching one night on his laptop when he should be snuggled up with his wife.
Instead of thinking “oh, that’s odd” and leaving it at that, Adam does a little digging, finds a few more films his doppelganger has been in, finds his agent, tracks down where he lives and then tentatively arranges a meeting, not realising that Anthony, the initially spooked actor also played by Gyllenhaal, might also have an agenda. Bizarrely, both men, when they meet, are so alike that there really is no gap between them, from the way they style their beards to the way they speak and react. And their partners (Adam’s is Mélanie Laurent; Anthony’s Sarah Gadon), each a good-looking blonde having a little relationship difficulty with her partner, seems to have the same problem too.
We’re very much in the sort of territory that late 1940s noir loved to wallow in – dark psychology, fractured personality, dreamscapes and hints of sexual deviancy. I haven’t mentioned the little vignettes that Villeneuve drops in of naked women in what looks like animal masks (it’s dark) slinking down long corridors? I have now.
At what point does the film leave reality behind? The answer is that it never really engages with it. It’s built inside a hall of mirrors – in real life there would be a thousand tells that would distinguish one person from another; here, Anthony even has a scar on his chest where Adam does. It doesn’t add up.
The plot is not the point though. It’s a vehicle for the mood of the thing. Has any recent film looked this queasily yellow? The colour of madness, cowardice, jaundice and death allied to a soundtrack of mournful clarinet, growling bassoon, honks of brass and nervous strings. The script is sparse, roads are empty, public spaces barely occupied, dialogue scarce but loaded. David Lynch is in there, in other words, though this is more “inspired by” than “lifted from”. And almost as proof here’s bizarro muse Isabella Rossellini as Anthony’s coolly unmaternal mother. Or was it Adam’s? Or are they the same person?
See it as an existential quest movie if you like – what is it that we are all searching for? Would having a doppelganger conveniently justify all our dark secrets, or scare the shit out of us? Both possibilities are examined in the closest that Gyllenhaal has got to this territory since Donnie Darko.
As for the ending, which suddenly makes all the psychological undertow overt in one laugh-out-loud shot, it’s Villeneuve’s raining-frogs-in-Magnolia moment, an abrupt full stop that signifies that he’s finished playing with us and we can all get back to whatever it was we were doing before. It’s going to irritate the hell out of people who haven’t been watching closely enough.
© Steve Morrissey 2014