Beneath Toronto skies the colour of sickness, history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives a life of looped dreariness. Driving daily between his drab shoebox apartment and the classroom where students are as involved as cardboard cutouts, engaging regularly in joyless sex with his in-service girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent), Adam is locked in an utterly flatlined existence. Noting that his slump-shouldered colleague could use some lightening up, a faculty colleague of Adam’s recommends a funny movie by way of therapy.
Watching on his laptop following an especially dispiriting lovemaking appointment with Mary, Adam is transfixed, but not because he finds the movie funny. It’s because of the actor he sees in the background of a certain scene, a guy who looks remarkably – identically, in fact – like him. Enemy, based on José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double, is about Adam’s obsessive stalking and pursuit of his mysterious doppelganger, a kind of existential detective mystery that plunges straight into the deep end of murky psychic disintegration. Best to take a deep breath before immersing yourself in Denis Villeneuve’s (Incendies, Prisoners) extended exercise in suggestive, first-person paranoia, because it never comes up for air.
Shot before the Canadian director made the major-studio, suburban-vigilante drama Prisoners, Enemy operates on a level of carefully calibrated unease, where the very elusiveness of motivation and logic is exploited for purposes of sustained cinematic disorientation. Like Adam, we’re insinuated into a world where everything is at once heightened, blurred and inexplicably threatening, from the quiet nocturnal hum of domestic appliances to dreams that bleed indistinguishably into wakefulness.
Initially, Adam’s initial contact with the actor Anthony (Gyllenhaal again, but the potent-stud mirror image to Adam) seems actual enough, but once made it too begins to waver into subjective delirium. Seeing in his dull stalker a particularly cruel casting opportunity, Anthony switches identities with an easily bullied Adam and insinuates himself sexually with Mary. But the reversal, which also sees Adam being warmly welcomed by the actor’s neglected and pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon), seems too neat – or at least to be taken literally. Could Anthony merely be Adam’s id unleashed, and the events themselves the projection of a mind at the tipping point of sanity?
Where the flawed, fascinating and ultimately unconvincing Prisoners was far longer on clammy atmospherics than it was dramatic logic, the comparatively miniature (barely 90 minutes) Enemy works like a dream. Encouraging us to suspend all expectations of logic from the beginning – which takes place in a members-only, mondo-strange strip joint specializing in stilettos and spiders – Enemy is free to indulge some very obvious obsessions of its own: the deadpan irrationality of vintage David Lynch hovers heavily here, as does the psychosexual splintering of David Cronenberg and the razor-sharp subjective perversity of Roman Polanski.
On the evidence of Maelstrom, Polytechnique, Prisoners and this, Villeneuve is clearly at his most inspired when seeking means to seduce his audience into a state of transfixed imbalance, and just about every element in Enemy – from the racoon-eyed Gyllenhaal’s spooked performance, cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc’s queasy colour palette, Matthew Hannam’s pulse-quickening editing and Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’s unnervingly ambient score – serves the larger purpose of locking us inside Adam’s head. Provided you’re prepared to stay there after the door clicks shut, Enemy is an airtight pleasure.