Thursday, 15 January 2015

Enemy (2013)

Dir. Denis Villeneuve

For a film that desires to be unconventional, I will start with the conclusion than go backwards. Enemy has a chance, hopefully, to grow in favour for me when I return to it. Again, first opinions are always problematic. The mind is fickle. But there is a clear aspect of the film which is a flaw now. Enemy is incredibly obvious as an attempt at a "strange" film and because of all the other movies I've seen that have influenced it, it's very normal and sells its premise short through trying to have this tone at quite a few points. The strangest and most unnerving aspect is the character dynamics, rather than the more openly obtuse content, of a history teacher Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovering he has a doppelganger, spotting an extra in a film who looks exactly like him called Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal). It eventually reaches its most interesting content by the third act, when the two learn of each other and infect each other's lives including that of their other halves (Mélanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon). To the point of a sexual favour being hinted at for one of the men to take advantage of, it reaches the uncomfortable tone of David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988), the character drama standing out as the more interesting and best content of Enemy. What feels flawed is the more deliberately abstract content. The spider metaphors, including the divisive final image, the conspiracy and political content etc. do feel too overtly prioritised on a first viewing when the real meat is the two doubles existing in a flux, where they switch roles and become difficult to tell between, and the dynamics that spin out from it.

What means more, and is of greater interest, is the performances and the psychological content. Gyllenhaal is in the position playing two individuals who the viewer can represent as two sides of the same person as well as separate people. At first, the narrative is of Adam the teacher investigating his doppelganger Anthony, only for the shifting roles of the two, and the involvement of Laurent as Adam's lover Mary and Gadon as Anthony's heavily pregnant wife Helen to take place. This leads to deliberate blurring and implications that the film is the metaphor of a person split into various roles through his sexual desires and boredom. A small cameo by Isabella Rossellini, always someone you want appear in a film even in a cameo, is where this dualist issue is shown further.

As two people Gyllenhaal is exceptional. Adam and Anthony are too similar to the discomfort for the character Helen, which becomes of importance for her dramatic narrative too, but noticeable differences in body language, without becoming heavy handed, are shown that make the doppelgangers their own complicated people as well as potential halves of each other. Adam cautious and hesitant, Anthony more confident in his stride. It's not just their clothes and the materials around them that represent their personalities - Anthony's motorbike as much part of his cocky persona - but Gyllenhaal's admirable performance as both, able to juggle two distinct characters in a film that calls for questions to be raised, like for James Steward in Vertigo (1958) following Kim Novak's Madeleine, of whether Adam and Anthony are actually the same man in a complicated little mind game. Because of the character interactions involved in the drama, Mélanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon are as of importance too. Unfortunately, Laurent is not given as much as she could've worked with; not just because of her breakout performance in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and the desire to see her act in more films, but because it would've been as interesting, more dynamic, for Enemy to include her more in the narrative. Gadon on the other hand, visibly pregnant in real life on screen and not just playing a pregnant woman, gets a lion's share of the drama which she does well with. Like Geneviève Bujold in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, her character is the one stuck in the middle of doubles' interactions, offset further by a scene, adding to the issue, where her husband Anthony is implicated for adultery, the relationship of the two as much part of the dynamics at play. Interestingly, narrowly avoiding this being a film which merely fetishes the sexuality held over the female form, with a lot of sex and nudity for a film with a fifteen certificate in the UK, Gadon's Helen gets to be complicated because of the character dynamics involved, including a great additional twist, just at the end, with spices things up with new implications.

Enemy though is as much about the talked about spider symbolism and many other things around this drama. Only ninety minutes, Enemy does end up devoting time to this material as much as the central idea, the content around this centre leaving me ambivalent to the film altogether. I have not read the original source novel The Double (2012) by José Saramago, but I do know content like the spider motif was added for this adaptation. The decision to be even more unconventional as a film beyond the doppelganger narrative is both a virtue and a failure which will complicate my attitude to Enemy. The decision for a yellow based lighting and visual palette, with colours still present but dialled down, places Enemy's setting into that where all is not necessarily what it seems without being cliché, a distinct visual look that balances the muted without becoming grotty. The rest of this style, including some of the content, is divisive for me however. There is a danger with films like this where filmmakers will use shorthand tropes to develop a mood that are caught short if thought about for longer than a brief minute. Particularly as director Denis Villeneuve has placed himself in the area of cinema occupied by the likes of David Lynch, he has set himself up for comparison. The best example of the conflict of Enemy's quality is Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans' score. The usher in the theatre I saw Enemy at, who ripped my ticket, a younger woman, compared the score to that by Mica Levi's for Under The Skin (2013). Under The Skin's music still haunts me from the beginning of last year and, rather than using cheap effect, its texture hearing it in the cinema added a dense quality to the visual content. The score for Enemy is at times a beautifully considered piece you can admire but it can also feel too deliberate. There is a potential concern with this type of current "oddball" cinema to use a term my mother coined, which Under The Skin stands above but Enemy is dangerously close to, where scenes and events in these films seem more profound and artistically brilliant only because of a shorthand like an industrial throbbing noise is layered over the images rather than a synchronicity between visuals and audio.

This issue is the same with the motifs and themes within the film. The spider motif feels arbitrary. Yes, there is the potential metaphor that it represents Adam and Anthony's fear of women, or the tangled webs woven by the narrative, but was it the best implementation to have this metaphor in the first place? As much as it leads to photogenic and poster friendly images, like a spider the size of a kaiju, it feels like excess baggage that doesn't need to be there. The same is with the potential political content. A lecture to Adam's history class, repeated twice, is about how dictatorships deceive the populous. Again, it feels excessive when the inherent idea of the doppelganger is political. Whether Adam and Anthony are the same people or different individuals who become one, it's impossible to fight against a dictatorship if one cannot control the different sides of your being. That and the fact the two could represent the alternative sides of one man, implicating the potential masks worn by people in a society. Finally there is a subplot about a secret sex show club which opens the film. This has more credibility in that it questions the reality of what is going on, or complicates the character of Adam/Anthony depending on how you adjust your thoughts on the film to include the material. Baring in mind that, on another viewing, that all the aspects mentioned in this paragraph could work better when revisited, it feels as if the film doesn't spread its main concerns further enough especially as there's only ninety minutes to work with.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Enemy was the first of two projects between Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal. The second film was the Hollywood film Prisoners (2013), with Hugh Jackson, that was released first. Enemy was designed by the director as an antidote for the potential compromises for Prisoners as a more mainstream film. Ironically, Prisoners is the more unconventional film - with a more conventional narrative, the more unconventional content, from Gyllenhaal as a police detective named Loki, or a spine tingling scene involving a room covered with travel cases on the floor, it becomes more striking as a film. Enemy with its spider motifs and dream sequences mutes its own energy with its upfront oddness. This is a matter of opinion, but the term 'weird' doesn't only mean the strange and bizarre, but that which suggests the supernatural or eerie. Enemy is a good film, but its mood and tone which is significant for my rating gauge as well as content, and Enemy doesn't have anything, for all its unconventional imagery, that is inherently abstract.

Personal Opinion:
Enemy is my first viewing experience for 2015. I've decided to concentrate on those so called "oddball" films, like Enemy, or films I have a minimum of a high interest in to see at a cinema or at all, because I want to be frugal with money, even if I was a rich man, and as a cineaste, you don't have to confirm it by watching films for the sake of it. So I start with Enemy, wide eyed from how good Prisoners was, with the hope for an abstract movie par excellence. Frankly, it fits between being an underrated work of interest, a slow burner, and a minor work of immense interest. The expectation for it, the promise, is always a problem when encountering a film that doesn't immediately stand out, and has flaws to it, the emotion flippant. I cannot help but compare Enemy to many films in the same company - Lynch, Cronenberg, countless mindbenders - and it does feel minor in comparison in my mind as it is currently.

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