I've been having a good time at the movies over the last few weeks. One of my favorite new films is ENEMY, a kind of slow-boiling surrealist thriller from director Denis Villeneuve, based on the book by Jorge Saramago. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a history professor (the movie never says, but he has that adjunct look to him) named Adam Bell who discovers, quite by accident one day, that he has an exact double walking around. His double (also played, in a bit of seamless moviemaking magic and topflight acting, by Gyllenhaal) is a callow Z-list actor named Anthony Clair.
The plot involving doubles has been done many times, probably to greatest effect in Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE. Kieslowski took "the double" as way to dramatize one of the central tragedies of life--that we have but one life to live. The idea of the double is so strangely haunting because it taps into some fantasy part of ourselves--that "who would I have been if I had been born somewhere else" mind game we sometimes play.
ENEMY is a darker look at this idea, though, because it puts the doubles in opposition to one another. Both Adam and Anthony have reason to want to escape their lives. Adam is depressed, stuck in a job that is just a loop of giving canned lectures to bored students, and stuck in a go-nowhere relationship with the lovely Mary (an excellent Melanie Laurent) that consists of sex and little else. Adam, meanwhile, has a pregnant wife named Helen (an equally excellent Sarah Gadon) who doesn't seem to trust him--in fact, she doesn't even seem to like him very much. We suspect that both Mary and Helen are right to be unhappy with these men. Adam is empty, incapable of joy or any real happiness. And there's something that's too aggressive about Anthony, something too entitled and angry.
One can't help but thinking that Adam and Anthony might, together, form one whole man. Maybe that's the appeal of "the double" plot--the sneaky suspicion that we're all missing something. What if all those questions we ask ourselves in private--Why can't I be smarter? Why can't I be more assertive?--what if those questions could have a physical expression?
In some ways, ENEMY reminded me of the 1948 HOLLOW TRIUMPH starring Paul Henreid. In that film, an ex-con on the run from the cops stumbles across his double and decides to murder the man and steal his life. ENEMY takes this kind of ridiculous plot and embraces its lunacy by approaching the material with surrealist flair. This is not a "realistic" movie in any sense. There are visions here that appear randomly like something out of David Lynch, or even further back--there's a spider here that reminded me of the "god as spider" vision in Bergman's THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY. And the final scene of this film, which I would not dare ruin for anyone, made me laugh with unexpected joy at its boldness.
Every movie sets its own rules for an audience. ENEMY requires both a rapt attention and an up-for-anything acceptance. I found those things very easy to provide. This is a great time at the movies.