176. ENEMY (2013)

“Chaos is order yet undeciphered.”–epigraph to Enemy



FEATURING: , Mélanie Laurent, 

PLOT: Adam, a professor of history, catches sight of a movie extra playing a bellhop who appears to be his exact double, and becomes obsessed with tracking him down. When they eventually meet they discover that Anthony, the actor, is Adam’s exact physical match, but has a nearly opposite personality, slick and scheming where Adam is passive and meek. Anthony, who has a rocky relationship with pregnant wife due to her accusations of infidelity, is drawn to Adam’s girlfriend; and though the professor wants to withdraw from their association, the actor’s machinations intertwine the two men’s lives.

Still from Enemy (2013)BACKGROUND:

  • Enemy is based on the novel “O Homem Duplicado” (literally “The Duplicated Man,” although the English translation was titled “The Double“) by the Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago. The novel has a very different, though equally chilling, ending than the film.
  • Director Denis Villeneuve and star Jake Gyllenhaal made Enemy back-to-back with the higher-profile, reality-based thriller Prisoners (2013). Enemy was made first but released second.
  • Villeneuve said that the plan to do the adaptation with Gyllenhaal came after a night of drinking in which the actor told the director he wanted to do the movie but needed to “dream” about it first.
  • Villeneuve said he wanted to make Enemy because he wanted to do something “free” in light of his anxieties over working under the constraints he feared would be imposed by a Hollywood studio on the upcoming Prisoners.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Enemy is one of a few movies whose most unforgettable image can’t be mentioned without entering the territory where spoilers dwell. Fortunately, there are plenty of runner-ups to chose from. With arachnid imagery dominating the hallucinatory scenes, it’s easy to pick the picture of a giant, spindly-legged spider looming over the smoggy streets of Toronto as the film’s iconic image. The movie’s TIFF poster took that precise route.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As tightly controlled as a dictatorship and as enigmatic as a tarantula on a gold serving platter, the inscrutable Enemy evokes a panicky existential dread in the tradition of . The final scene will provoke debate for as long as people watch weird movies.

Original trailer for Enemy

COMMENTS: Enemy begins with the epigram “chaos is order yet undeciphered,” and I admit to having yet to decipher the twisty web of chaos the movie spins—or to be fully convinced that it is decipherable. Beginning with a fractured montage depicting one of those impossibly elegant and depraved invitation-only live sex shows that only exist in the movies, Enemy emerges from its abstract opening to focus on Adam, a melancholy history professor currently lecturing on the methods dictatorships use to keep their citizens in the dark about how they are being controlled. Adam’s life consists of little more than work and joyless sex with his girlfriend until one day, prodded by a strange offhand recommendation by a colleague, he watches a movie and catches a glimpse of an extra who looks exactly like him. While most of us would find such a discovery “neat” and invite our friends over to the screen confirm the resemblance, Adam’s reaction is different: immediate uncomprehending horror, followed by an obsessive need to track down his double.

Denis Villeneuve’s direction pumps out a subtle, constant stream of anxiety: the characters’ overly alarmed reactions to everyday events, throwaway lines of dialogue suggesting layers of unexplored subtexts, the cold and lonely modern apartments both Adam and his doppelganger glide through like ghosts, the jaundiced pallor of the movie’s interiors. He slowly and deliberately draws out the tension in each scene, lingering perversely and unfashionably long on Gyllenhaal’s angsty expressions as he tiptoes towards some new horrifying turn in the story. Altering his bearing to portray either the sensitive Adam or the brash Anthony, Gyllenhaal gives the best performance alongside himself since Nic Cage‘s turn in Adaptation (although Jeremy Irons retains the mantle for split personality perfs). From a technique standpoint, Gyllenhaal’s acting is sure to win over even causality snobs who scoff at Enemy‘s obscure logic. The entire movie is shot through a sulfurous filter that calls to mind Prufrock’s yellow fog, which creates a feeling of nauseous unreality. The creepy and effective neoclassical score piles on slow, minor chord progressions that continually build without resolving: the feeling of something pent up, about to snap.

Multiple themes weave their way through Enemy‘s knotty storyline. Control (particularly totalitarian control), duplicity, repetition, motherhood, dread, sexual conflict, forbidden lust; these are all notes which chime again and again throughout the script. One common interpretation of Enemy‘s central conflict is that the movie is about the duplicity involved in infidelity, which splits a man into two public selves. When Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen refers to a previous affair, Anthony acts evasively, although we know he has been speaking on the phone to Adam, not to a woman. Anthony is an actor, a man whose vocation is to deceive and to take on another’s identity. Anthony is also a womanizer, and Helen is (rightfully) suspicious of him, although that mistrust sometimes surfaces in indirect ways: “I think you know,” she sobs mysteriously when Anthony denies knowing anything about a man out there who is his exact double. Although we are introduced to Adam first and are therefore inclined to view him as the protagonist, the adultery interpretation makes Anthony the central character and Adam the secondary personality.

Helen’s pregnancy also plays an important role in the story. Helen is far more developed and significant than Adam’s girlfriend Mary, who we might almost refer to as “the other woman.” Although the crowd-edited “trivia” section of Enemy‘s IMDB entry informs us that it has been “analyzed by many people” that spiders represent “weakness to women,” it makes more sense to me that the omnipresent creatures represent Anthony’s unborn child, whose looming arrival is creating anxiety. The idea of history repeating itself, which is emphasized in Adam’s history lecture (amusingly, we get to hear him deliver the same lecture twice), also ties into the procreation theme. Is the child the doppelganger of the adult?

Although it’s easy to make these sorts of connections, what makes Enemy impossible to scan logically is the fact that the film’s literal and symbolic levels exists together onscreen at the same time. We don’t believe that at some point there is literally a giant spider standing over Toronto, although nothing in the context of the shot, besides its impossibility, suggest that it happens in a dream or hallucination. We don’t even know for certain whether there are one or two Jake Gyllenhaal’s in the story. Metaphorically, the idea of the exact double suggests a single person with a divided personality. Literally, we see two Gyllenhaals, Adam and Anthony, onscreen together. The troubled reactions of Anthony’s pregnant wife and Adam’s girlfriend, who each play a scene where they suspect that their lover has been replaced with an identical substitute, reinforce the film’s literal premise that the story concerns two distinct, unrelated, but physically indistinguishable men. The other key woman in the film, however, throws this common sense interpretation into doubt. Isabella Rossellini’s short but crucial scene casts a sudden doubt on Gyllenhaal’s identity. Although Rossellini only appears on film for one scene, the story begins with a voicemail from her, we are conspicuously reminded of her existence in the middle of the film, and in the final scene we learn that Gyllenhaal has just missed a phone call from a woman who may or may not be Rossellini. Her character plays in the background like some barely acknowledged Freudian phantom.

As expected, the legions of exegetes who insist that every puzzle must have a solution have turned out in full force to interpret Enemy. Many are driven to build a sensible narrative out of this simple yet paradoxical tale, but usually it’s an easy enough matter to pick out some inconsistent scene and use it as a pin to pop these soap bubble constructions. Villanueve himself has encouraged the expositors with quotes like, “if you look at ‘Enemy’ again, you can see everything has an answer and a meaning.” Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s possible that everything has an answer and a meaning, but that we aren’t given enough unambiguous information to see it. (This is the issue, for example, with movies, which contain symbolic keys so personal to the author that no other person could reasonably and reliably be expected to use them to decode the mysteries). Furthermore, although in that much-cited interview Villaneuve implies the movie can be restricted to a definite single meaning, other evidence from the “Lucid Dreaming” DVD supplement contradicts that statement. A confused Rossellini says that when she asked the director whether Gyllenhaal was actually playing one man or two in the story, Villanueve replied that he wished to keep it ambiguous. Gyllenhaal says that the spider is a “question mark” and that there are “millions of interpretations” for the symbol. Villanueve himself says “I think it’s very interesting for everybody to have their own interpretation,” “Enemy is a movie that is designed to be seen in different ways,” and, most significantly, “I think the audience will understand the movie from the emotional point of view, not from the logic point of view.” As Enemy‘s opening legend suggests, chaos may be nothing but order yet undeciphered; but nothing in the quote guarantees us that we will someday decipher that chaos.


“…generates a satisfyingly arch hum of weirdness.”–Robert Abele, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

“…piles on the weirdness.”–Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor (contemporaneous)

“Gyllenhaal is impressive in a weirdly original thriller from Villeneuve that trips over its many legs at the finish.”–Jeff Baker, The Oregonian (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE: Enemy – Just a trailer, synopsis and clips from positive reviews

IMDB LINK: Enemy (2013)


EnemyEnemy‘s official Facebook page

Enemy – Women Featurette – At the time of this writing, Amazon is offering a 3-minute excerpt from the DVD’s “Lucid Dreams” featurette to watch or download for free

Denis Villeneuve, ‘Prisoners’ Director, On The Movie He Made After Getting Drunk With Jake Gyllenhaal – Huffington Post interview with the director, exploring both Prisoners and Enemy but focusing on the latter

What Should We Make of Enemy’s Shocking Ending? – Slate.com’s Forrest Wickman offers an unusual but well-supported interpretation of Enemy (spoilers, obviously)

ENEMY, the Movie – This fan page may be guilty of not making it clear upfront that it’s not an official Enemy site, but there are some interesting links here, including fan-made posters and “memes”

Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans – Scoring “Enemy”– Brief YouTube collection of behind-the-scenes clips of the composers working on the eerie score

LIST CANDIDATE: ENEMY (2013) – Our original capsule review of Enemy

DVD INFO: The 2014 Lions Gate DVD (buy) is fairly lightweight. The only extra is “Lucid Dreams”, a 17-minute behind-the-scenes documentary (very enlightening on the technical aspects, but if you’re hoping for any straightforward narrative answers or canonical explanations of the symbolism, you won’t get much from Villeneuve or the other interviewees here). The disc doesn’t even include a trailer, much less a director’s commentary which might have shed light on some of the film’s mysteries.

The Blu-ray (buy) is identical in content (in higher definition).

Enemy is also available to buy or rent on-Demand, and the digital release comes with the “Lucid Dreams” featurette.

2 thoughts on “176. ENEMY (2013)”

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