Friday, March 14, 2014

The two Jakes

For all the compelling enigmas permeating Quebec director Denis Villeneuve’s latest and finest film (all arachnid appearances are duly noted), there is something pleasingly unambiguous about its title. Mining an anxiety so primal as to require no explanation within the film itself, Enemy is about the terror of seeing yourself duplicated, of discovering another with your face and voice trespassing upon your singularity, a forced mirror relieving you of the consolations of uniqueness while reminding you of all your failures in this life. But it’s also, very cleverly, a movie about the psychic perils of watching movies, making it that much more apt that it features an American movie star at its double-centre. Identify with the hero at your own risk.

Loosely adapted from José Saramago’s The Double—or, to translate its original Portuguese title literally, The Duplicated Man—by Javier Gullón, Enemy follows Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a history professor, as he distractedly goes about having unintentionally rough sex with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent) or lecturing on dictatorships and their control over individual expression. What’s distracting him? Maybe it’s his burgeoning depression, some new unease with his seemingly anonymous existence, exemplified above all by his boxy apartment, a place that barely seems inhabited. Desperate for even the most fleeting escape, he accepts a co-worker’s advice and rents an inane comedy on DVD. He watches the movie, goes to bed, and dreams of the movie. It’s only when replaying the movie in his dream that he recognizes the actor in the miniscule role of a bellboy. His name is Anthony St. Clair (Jake Gyllenhaal), and he looks like Adam and sounds like Adam, and Adam immediately understands that he’s no choice but to find him.

A man sees his doppelgänger in a movie. I said to be wary of identification, but the truth is that our surrogate in Enemy isn’t Adam but, rather, Helen (Sarah Gadon), Anthony’s pregnant wife, the only person in the movie able to fully appreciate the uncanny resemblance between the men. One of the smartest things in Gullón’s script is the space left in the story for Helen to occupy; one of the smartest things in the casting is the selection of Gadon, who’s of late turned up in numerous high-profile Canadian films yet never to such marvellous effect. Her Helen is both alarmed and complicit in the meeting and negotiations between the two Jakes. She’s highly active yet in a state of shocked suspension. Gyllenhaal is in excellent form, offering an array of incrementally layered reaction shots—several of which are reactions to his own actions. Villeneuve and editor Matthew Hannam allow their lead to hog the screen, as though trapped in a hall of mirrors. It’s less a stunt performance than a perfectly gauged exercise in an actor’s most solipsistic nightmare.

But the real masterstroke of Enemy might be the casting of Toronto—a sort of enemy city for many Canadians, not least among them Quebeckers. There’s not a single glimpse of Toronto’s charms or history or funk in Enemy. Instead, Villeneuve maximizes the hard, monolithic coldness of the Gardiner freeway, of the financial sector’s blandest skyscrapers, of the University of Toronto’s brutalist campus, rendering Adam/Anthony’s world one of looming eeriness and reflective surfaces. The world of Enemy is highly subjectivized, perfectly recognizable yet strange. Did it become strange because of Adam/Anthony’s chance encounter? Is this town not big enough for the both of them? 

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