Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is the best surrealist fever dream mind fuck of a film I’ve seen since Mulholland Dr. No hyperbole. No bullshit. Really, it’s that good. The film is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, buried within a magic trick. Many will spend countless hours attempting to dissect it. They’ll ask questions that have no answers, and offer opinions based on distorted information. That’s not my style. I’ve never appreciated film as a medium to pick apart. Examining what it all means doesn’t appeal to me. It’s the experience of a film that I specifically desire. What is a film telling me, and how does that make me feel? Experience. Emotion. These are a few of the things that make my world go round.
We meet a man. A regular, every day, ordinary man with a thick beard, a boring wardrobe, and a drab Volvo. This is Adam, a history professor at a Toronto college, played impeccably by Jake Gyllenhaal. Adam’s life is a pattern. He gets up, goes to school, teaches class, goes home, sleeps with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent), gets up, goes to school, and on and on. Through one of Adam’s lectures (and some ingenious film editing), we discover that he is keenly aware of life’s patterns. Due to these patterns, we quickly sense who Adam is. But there are puzzlements. Subtle discrepancies that deviate from his seemingly mundane lifestyle. For example, Adam appears to be very aggressive in the bedroom. I don’t mean violent, but really invested in carnal desire, which seems unlike the Adam we know.
One evening while watching a “local” film on his laptop, he notices the face of a background actor. He notices this face, because it is his face, or at least someone who looks exactly like him. After some amusing detective work, Adam finds the actor’s home phone number. He cautiously calls. A woman picks up and immediately mistakes Adam’s voice for her husband, Anthony.
And we’re off and running.
Enemy is directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian filmmaker with a profound interest in dark, human stories. His brutal family drama, Incendies, is one of the finest films made in the last decade, and should’ve won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2011. Last year, his other brutal family drama, Prisoners, was released to critical and commercial acclaim. I wrote a very favorable review of Prisoners last September, but I’m happy to report that Enemy couldn’t be more different.
Villeneuve made Prisoners and Enemy back to back, using the same actor and releasing the films together at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It is a marvel to watch these two films so closely to one another, and discover the many facets of Villeneuve’s mind. In Enemy, Villeneuve has swapped the beautiful, cold, Oscar-nominated photography of Prisoners with a bright, sepia-infused palette. The musical score and often rapid editing of Enemy is a welcome change to the linear focus of Prisoners. I could go on, but you get it. Denis Villeneuve is clearly a man of various skills, capable of releasing two great, vastly different films at the exact same time.
The highest compliment I can offer a dual performance is that the actor makes you forget you’re watching the same actor. For example, when I watch Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, I know Nicolas Cage is playing the tortured, insecure Charlie Kaufman, but I often forget that he’s also playing Charlie’s silly, opportunistic brother, Donald. Same applies to Gyllenhaal’s work in Enemy. Gyllenhaal inhabits the mannerisms of a morose college professor with utter conviction. The bland wardrobe, the beige apartment, the shuffling walk, the untreated hair – it all plays flawlessly. And by the time we meet Anthony (who behaves like a cocky frat boy who accidentally knocked his girlfriend up in college, and had to give up The Party because of it), it’s as if we’re meeting a completely different actor.
To argue which man Gyllenhaal occupies better is fruitless. The point is, he seamlessly immerses himself so deeply into two worlds, that it can be purposefully, amusingly, difficult for the audience to tell them apart. (For added fun, compare Gyllenhaal’s characters in Enemy to his brash and passionate Loki from Prisoners. They literally have nothing in common. The fact that a director and a star were able to create three distinctly different characters in such a short period of time is a remarkable feat in and of itself.)
Originality. I’m asked a lot about what I look for in films. What makes me truly love a movie? And that’s the answer, originality. Originality is the heart of art. When executed well, originality pumps life into any artistic medium. I’ve dedicated my life to just one art form, and I’ve grown to realize that originality gives me hope. It rights all of film’s wrongs, curbs my doubt, and makes the future look bright. I watched much of Enemy with a wide smile. Though the film’s subtlety lends itself to smart humor, it is far from a funny film. I wasn’t smiling because I was laughing, I was smiling because I was happy. Ecstatic, even. I was watching a film unlike any I had ever seen. The future is bright, folks, and Enemy is a perfect example as to why. A+