*. I really like Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, but when I was reading it I don’t think there was a single moment when I thought it needed to, or even could be, turned into a movie.
*. I bring up Saramago because Enemy is a film that invites and resists interpretation and you might be thinking that reading The Double will help you to a deeper or clearer understanding of what it’s about. I recommend reading The Double, but not for any light it will shed on Enemy. For starters, there are no spiders in the book, giant or otherwise.
*. The spider imagery is a good example of what I said about inviting and resisting interpretation. Spiders are obviously central, but they have no explicit meaning. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that the cast signed a confidentiality agreement forbidding them to speak to the press about the spiders. This suggests that there was a correct and secret meaning to them, though I think it might all have been part of the promotion.
*. For what it’s worth, my own reading of the spiders is pretty straightforward and I think widely agreed upon. They’re meant to symbolize the women who are trying to catch Adam/Anthony in their web (i.e., force him to commit and settle down).
*. So much, so easy. Things get more complicated, however, when we start trying to unpack what is “really” happening in the movie.
*. Let’s stick with the matter of the doubles. Here are the main possibilities:
*. (1) Only Adam (the history professor) really exists. Anthony (the actor) is just a fantasy. But to make this work, Adam has to be married to Helen (Anthony’s wife) and there is no Mary. The radio report of a car crash is about some totally unrelated accident.
*. (2) Only Adam really exists, but he pretends to be Anthony on the side. This is the split personality thesis. Adam/Anthony is thus really having an affair with Mary, posing as . . . Adam. Hm. I suppose this means that Mary dies alone in a car crash for some unrelated reason, but the whole business with her noticing the mark from this wedding ring makes no sense. I also wondered how he was affording the rent on two apartments without his wife noticing any red flags.
*. (3) Adam actually has a doppelgänger, for whatever supernatural or science-fictional reason (perhaps a device being used by the government in some future totalitarian Toronto). The double, Anthony, dies and Adam decides (or resigns himself) to settling down with Helen. She thinks this is a good idea too, though with her own misgivings.
*. That third possibility is usually discounted, if it’s brought up at all, but I’m not sure it should be dismissed so quickly. For one thing, it’s very much embedded in Saramago’s novel, which draws on the literature of the fantastic. Here the fantastic elements seem clearly identified with mental states (anxiety, dreams), but perceptions can be reality.
*. I don’t think there’s any easy way of sorting this out, even though many of the explications of the film seem to end with the notion of their being only one protagonist with a split personality. There’s a basic problem with this though. For example, it raises the question of why Adam’s fantasy life is being led by Adam and not Anthony. That’s a weird sort of fantasy. Adam is the part of the personality he’s trying to escape from.
*. There are also issues with regard to the time scheme that are unresolved and probably unresolvable. Is the trip to the sex club something that happens at the beginning of the story, or the end? Perhaps it doesn’t make a difference and we are just meant to understand that our hero is stuck in a loop, the historical “pattern” that he lectures about.
*. All of this is very clever, and fun to puzzle over, but I think the point of it is just to jazz up the otherwise obvious reading I began with: that what we have here is just the story of a middle-aged, slightly introverted man who is anxious about settling down and becoming a father. The idea of the hero having a split personality isn’t very original or engaging by itself. Fight Club is probably the best known recent example, but it’s a plot with a long history, going back to films like De Palma’s Sisters. Also, the complexities of Saramago’s novel, which depend a lot on metafictional conceits, are hard (though not impossible) to translate to the screen. This leaves Denis Villeneuve playing with a pretty limited bag of tricks, involving a lot of misdirections and red herrings.
*. I don’t want to give the impression from any of this that I didn’t like Enemy. In fact, it’s one of my favourite movies of this decade. I don’t think it’s as complex or as deep as some have made it out to be, but it is serious and thought-provoking, original and well made. It’s sad they didn’t keep Saramago’s twist at the end, but I don’t they could have given the streamlining they’d done to the theme.
*. It also stars Jake Gyllenhaal. Jake Gyllenhaal always strikes me as someone who is coming down off something. For what it’s worth, I thought he made a more credible Anthony than Adam. In the latter role he seemed affected to me, and I got tired of the stutter.
*. I lived in Toronto for ten years. God what an ugly city. As I recall it’s even worse in reality than it looks here.
*. It has to be more than just laziness that makes me think of Cronenberg here. More than just Villeneuve and Cronenberg both being Canadians with a thing for psychological thrillers, or the weird plot (are Adam and Anthony dead ringers?), or the way the foreboding architecture is used to make people seem like test subjects in some lab experiment (Adam teaches at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus, which is a Cronenbergian location as well). No, there’s something else.
*. The fear of the other sex, for example. Or the insect imagery, which has it that instead of a man turning into a fly we have a woman turning into a spider — and note how bug-like Anthony appears in his motorcycle gear. He’s not really a predator, he’s the prey.
*. But most of all I think it’s just a shared sense of subtle and quiet unease. We are not at home in this alien world.
*. I was going to say something appreciative of the photography, and specifically the burnt orange and yellow colour scheme, which makes Toronto seem an urban desert (and Villeneuve does like the desert). It’s certainly a lot warmer than my own memories of the place, which are all painted in a couple of shades of grey. It’s also nicer than the aquarium colours (predominantly blue and green) that have become the default for so many horror movies lately.
*. But then I began to wonder why so many films are going this route, settling on a specific and quite limited palette instead of making a more dramatic use of colour to create a deeper sense of space. So much of today’s photography seems bleached or tinted and that’s it.
*. I’ve mentioned before how much I love a scene where we get to see a character just thinking. So it should come as no surprise that the moment in the movie I like the best comes when Helen (Sarah Gadon) is considering what to do with this man in her bed. What makes this especially wonderful is that it’s not that we know something she may or may not have figured out (that this isn’t her husband), but that she knows something we don’t and perhaps never will, which is Adam/Anthony’s real character.
*. I want to end with that because it’s a high note and I really did like Enemy. I wouldn’t have thought The Double a likely work to be adapted into a successful film, but I think they took the right approach here, staying true to most of the story while taking it in some interesting new directions. There are layers here worth peeling back, but something at the center that I don’t think we can ever get to.