Jake Gyllenhaal plays a double role in Enemy, the film based on Jose Saramago’s novel “The Double” (which I haven’t read). A history professor named Adam Bell meanders through his life, lecturing, coming home, having repetitive sex with his girlfriend (Melanie Laurent), and fielding calls from his domineering mother (Isabella Rosselini). He seems to walk around in a fog. He’s a shlub, his shirt coming untucked, his walk lumbering, his manner with others shy and reticent. He lectures on dictatorships throughout history. The lecture halls are only a quarter full. He doesn’t seem to notice or care. One day, a colleague mentions a movie he saw that he thinks Adam would enjoy. It’s a “local film,” but it was funny. Adam is not a movie-watcher, and doesn’t even know why the colleague is talking to him. He blinks nervously, through the conversation, trying to focus on the social interaction, but it’s difficult. However, on the way home, he passes a video store, and goes in and rents the movie in question. Later that night, after more tense angry sex with his girlfriend, he watches the movie on his laptop. And there, in the background of one of the scenes, is a bellhop who looks exactly like him.
It begins his descent into madness and obsession. Who is that doppelgänger? Is there something he doesn’t know about his life? Who is he? Why do they look exactly alike? He begins to research the actor who played the bellhop.
I was not a fan of Villeneuve’s Prisoners, although I loved Gyllenhaal’s performance. Gyllenhaal is a meticulous actor. He plays obsessives really well. Think of Zodiac. Enemy shows a man searching for his twin, basically, and as that search intensifies, very very strange things start happening. Similar to the gradual “persona swap” in Mulholland Drive, where you’re never quite sure the exact moment when the two women switch roles … or even how such a swap takes place … in Enemy you start to get hints, clues, that there has been a complete merging of the two characters, without their knowledge or consent. And everyone else seems to be “in on the joke,” a terrifying and Kafka-esque vision of the universe, where you are the only one left out of knowledge, knowledge that is crucial for your survival.
The film looks incredible, a sort of smudgy polluted yellow, and it was filmed in Toronto in a way that makes Toronto look, frankly, Stalinist. Gigantic identical buildings, looming above a freeway, everything deserted, except for the traffic jam below. Architecture meant to dwarf human beings.
The “double” theme is a cliche at this point but I, for one, never get sick of the explorations of it. I just read Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Secret Sharer,” in which a stowaway shows up on a ship, and immediately the captain realizes that it is, somehow, his twin. His double. He hastens to protect his twin, hiding him in his cabin, but the situation eventually becomes too intense and too heated for anyone to survive. That’s the kind of thing that doubles bring. They call into question something that we are led to believe is set in stone: that we are unique. We may be boring, we may be unhappy, we may be shlubs, but we are the only one of us. To have that challenged is horrifying.
Enemy is great. I highly recommend it.