There have been a number of films about doubles and doppelgangers. These range from twin thrillers like The Black Room (1935), Among the Living (1941), The Dark Mirror (1946), Dead Ringer (1964) and Scissors (1991) that play out around doubles and identity confusion or David Cronenbergs perversely brilliant Dead Ringers (1988) exploring the disturbed psychology and sexual fetishism of twins. Far more interesting have been stories that spin this out often to a more supernatural or allegorical level works like the adaptation of Edgar Allan Poes William Wilson in Tales of Mystery and Imagination/Spirits of the Dead (1968), The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), The Other (1972), Doppelganger (1992), The Dark Half (1993), Gemini (1999), The Tigers Tail (2006) and I Know Who Killed Me (2007), which usually concern a sinister double that takes over someones life. Indeed, at the very same Toronto International Film Festival where Enemy premiered, also playing was Richard Ayoades The Double (2013) featuring Jesse Eisenberg having his life taken over by a doppelganger, although that film played the premise more for oddball comedy, while around the same time there was also Another Me (2013) with English schoolgirl Sophie Turner encountering a double of herself and The One I Love (2014) where husband and wife Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss encounter idealised versions of themselves.
With Enemy, Denis Villeneuve directs with subdued quietude. The lighting levels in the film are brought down to almost a monochrome where it feels like the whole film is taking place at dusk in a room with the curtains drawn but for a small crack. Villeneuve keeps the film tight and the story is driven almost entirely by the four characters. It plays out in nuances and subtleties, in particular the silences the way Sarah Gadon just sits and stares without speaking at Jake Gyllenhaal #1 on a neighbouring bench at the university. One of the finest scenes in the film is where Adam goes and takes Anthonys place and nervously gets into bed with Sarah Gadon and where she lies there for a long time looking at him where you can almost see that she is wondering to herself which man she has with her, all something that is implied without words.
The film opens with a quote from Jose Saramago chaos is order yet undeciphered. The irony of the film is that it is a surrealist work and leaves us with no easy clues as to its decipherment. The film is peppered up with bafflingly surreal images dreams of a naked woman with the face of a spider walking upside down along the ceiling; a giant spider striding across the Toronto skyline like something out of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds (1898). However, the aspect that has everybody coming out of the screening baffled is the ending. [PLOT SPOILERS] Here Jake Gyllenhaal hears an odd thump in the apartment and goes into the room to see Sarah Gadon and we see that she has turned into a giant spider, whereupon the film abruptly fades to black. Everyone exits going WTF was that? while everybody else is going I havent the slightest idea.
Enemy is an effective film so long as what you require of a film is that it never makes sense. What it reminds of in this regard is David Lynch films such as Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001), which both resemble a room built with a host of staircases all of which lead nowhere at all in terms of explanations. The film leaves you wondering what is going on what was the spider at the end? What do the dream sequences mean? How do all of these spiders tie back in to the opening scene in the underground fetish club where we see two blonde women before an audience of men one seemingly masturbating, another taking her clothes off and about to squish a spider with her high heel? Do these two women correspond in some way to the two blonde women in either Jakes lives?
The nearest clues I can find to interpreting the film come in Denis Villeneuves comments from the press release. [PLOT SPOILERS] There he states:- A man who wants to leave his mistress and go back to his pregnant wife must confront his worst enemy: himself. Saramago decided, with all his ferocious humour, that this man should be in competition with another version of himself. In other words, what Villeneuve seems to be saying is that both versions of Jake Gyllenhaal are parts of a single mans divided self. That one of these is having an affair with a woman, another of these is married at home but both are in fact the same man, just objectifications of his outer and inner personalities. The resolution of the film, which kills off the mistress and the husband who has fled with her, sees both parts of Gyllenhaals self figuratively integrated into one and he happily returning to be with his wife again. This is an interpretation that has to tune out quite a few other parts of the film like why both halves seem to be two different men with different occupations and lead lives oblivious to their partners, and still fails to explain anything to do with the spiders.
Of course the David Lynch analogy falls down in other areas. Lynch directs in a process that seems to mainline the unconscious in much the same way that artists paint, whereas Denis Villeneuve is controlled and measured, pays more attention to plot and realism. You are tempted to call Enemy a very Cronenbergian film. There are a great many points of intersection between the two the Toronto location, actress Sarah Gadon who was the female lead in Cronenbergs Cosmopolis (2012), even the use of the distinctive University of Toronto Scarborough locations where Cronenberg shot his first film Stereo (1969). On the other hand, Cronenberg and Villeneuve are very different directors. In his twin film Dead Ringers, Cronenberg is interested in perverse headspaces. In his film, Villeneuve allows everything to take place in ordinary reactions to the surreal and amid the things that people arent saying. You could perhaps see Enemy as one of Cronenbergs post-horror films A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007), A Dangerous Method (2011). Of these, perhaps the closest Cronenberg film that Enemy resembles is Spider (2002) that seems to take place in terms of internal headspaces where we are never given objective footholds as to the meanings of the symbols.