The Real ‘Enemy’

Seeing Double with Denis Villeneuve’s Taut Thriller

The first in our new series, A24 Conversations, EIC Alex Wen and Editor Ashish Valentine sit down to chat about a film from the leading independent distributor’s filmography. We start with “Enemy”, Denis Villeneuve’s thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jake Gyllenhaal. 

Alex: So we both just saw Enemy, Denis Villeneuve’s thriller on doppelgangers and the second film from 2013 based on a book called The Double. Initial thoughts?

Ashish: What I notice any time I see one of Villeneuve’s films (Incendies, Blade Runner 2049, Sicario) is his ability to use uneven pacing and surreal images to get us inside a character’s head, or to establish a certain uniform tone for the story.   

Alex: Surreal, as in spiders?

Ashish: Yes, in this case. But also I think broadly, like the way that he creates a dreamlike mood that runs constant throughout the movie. You see it a lot in Arrival where time skips oddlybut also in Blade Runner, Incendies. It reminds me a tiny bit of In the Mood for Love’s use of time and recurrence, situating the camera in the characters’ perceptions of time and reality.

Alex: There’s definitely a few interesting techniques at play that create that surreal/otherworldly environment. The sparseness of some of the environments where it really feels like Adam is the only person in the world, in some dream world. And the exposition shots of architecture are interesting too—the focus on those apartment buildings, the stillness gives it an alien-like vibe, kind of like Inception. Tone-wise, it hits the sci-fi of Arrival or Blade Runner without really being sci-fi.

Ashish: Yeah a lot of the built environment feels very brutalist and even though the movie was made in something like 2014 or so the technology is made to feel very early 2000s. The laptops always make this disk reading noise that you only hear on old desktops.

Alex: And the video store. Not to mention, the quickest way to learn more about doppelgangers would be looking them up on Facebook.

Ashish: In its use of targeted anachronism, it’s almost a milder version of the other The Double.

Alex: The fact that the other Double features Jesse Eisenberg who played Zuckerberg in The Social Network. There’s a meta game being played here.

Ashish: Spider illuminati confirmed.

Alex: This is actually the Spider-man origin story, gritty DC style.

Ashish: In another 20 years of DC gritty iterations, in about 10 years we hit peak dark-blue filterand then they switch to yellow. Let’s talk about the spider stuff that I feel is the spider-shaped elephant in the room. I did think of Louise Bourgeois at the shot when the giant spider is walking around the skyscrapers. Though that interview on Film Comment helped a lot in understanding the connection between spiders and femininity that is going on.

Alex: That imagery just made me think it was a kaiju movie. I haven’t read the interview yet.I can see the connection, but what’s it really about: is it as a threat? a looming trap?

Ashish: So apparently it is inspired by Louise Bourgeois’s spider sculptures, which were supposed to represent her mother but also various essences of womanhood: crafty, dangerous, protective, and its weaving of silk akin to feminine domestic labor like knitting, sewing.

Alex: The black widow archetype. The mother is also the only character Adam confides in right?

Ashish: Yeah, there is this whole Freudian layer to his and Anthony’s interactions with womensince each woman in the story fits a certain archetype of oversexualized maiden, pregnant maid, elderly matron.

Alex: And thinking about how spiders consume their prey, and the sex scenes where there’s this focus on legs wrapping around the body in a similar fashion.

Ashish: Yeah not just prey too, since a lot of female spiders consume the male after matingtotally.

Alex: Aren’t those just praying mantises?

Ashish: Oh no I think with spiders they just kill the male instead of eating it. You’re right.

Alex: Don’t slander female spiders.

Ashish: A bunch are now going to crawl out of the wall and punish me for my toxic discourse.Also in the interview Villeneuve basically mentioned that to an extent the two doppelgangers are various conscious and subconscious layers of one person deciding ultimately to leave his mistress and go back to his wife. And I think the representations of characters and spiders literally embody the fears that Adam/Anthony has about people in his life. Will this woman he’s going back to end up consuming his life?

Alex: But how is that true for Adam? Or is this more about Anthony?

Ashish: So I think that Anthony loosely represents a part of Adam’s identity.

Alex: Feeling tied down by this looming incoming family. And as a hot shot wannabe actor, wants to live the lavish life of underground parties and so he longs for Adam’s no nonsense freedom where it’s just sex and done.

Ashish: I think Anthony and Adam can really loosely be said to be the id and superego respectively of an identity. Anthony represents this uber-confident, irrational, sexually confident yet frustrated side. Whereas Adam is living a life of repetitive work and sex but is increasingly disengaged from it. I think Adam can be said to even have originally been with Helen, the pregnant woman, and forgot about her.

Alex: Adam is a professor and depicted as very intelligent but he lives in a bare, lifeless apartment versus Anthony, an actor that plays everything but himself, because there isn’t much to him in a full apartment. Are we in agreement that Adam and Anthony are two sides of the same person? We don’t have to spend too much time on the logic because I don’t think it’s too important, but it’s worth thinking about how the unraveling of the relationship plays a big role in the suspense. I was convinced this was a secret government cloning program, especially since it appeared like Anthony at first seemed aware / or not shocked by knowing Adam was out there

Ashish: Definitely. I think that part of the tension of the two meeting in that hotel room is reminiscent of the tension that any person feels when they don’t feel or recognize themselves. Part of what explains the divergent personalities for me is also the existence of the two women in the Adam/Anthony individual’s life. I do think that when you become close enough to a person a version of yourself is created that exists within that relationship and then when that relationship ends, that version of you dies since you no longer have access to it. Which is what happens when Anthony and Mary die in the car crash. It’s for me a representation of that relationship ending and Adam, split from that identity, going back to his wife.

Alex: Ever the romantic. Is it just a matter of Adam going back to Helen? If that’s the reading, then it’s him resolving the affair and learning from it? Is it not more tragic since Adam seems like the “better” guy, that it’s more like Adam succumbing to Anthony’s tendencies.

Ashish: It’s possible. For me, the key too is the crying he does once he gets in bed with Helen and afterward.

Alex: Like this cyclical thing where men are destined to be toxic and shitty. Like either Helen just has to put up with it (and literally live in fear), or fight back like Mary and die. This is the price of dealing with men (and perhaps more broadly, dealing with relationships) where you have to give up a piece of you. Because getting into bed with Helen was a really big move versus like Anthony just gleefully cheated on Helen with Mary. So my gut read was that Anthony has persuaded Adam to be like him and live a life of lies and manipulation.

Ashish: I actually see Helen as exerting the agency there since Adam only gets into bed once she has asked him a few times. Then he cries and leaves, and then their sexual encounter is initiated by her. Though actually I’d go so far as to say that neither Mary nor Helen exists as their own characters in the film, if that makes sense. They both exist only as seen through Adam/Anthony.

Alex: But i think that comes back to the spider thing where those may be the actionsbut taken literally, there’s a stranger in the house and Helen is vulnerable because she’s pregnant. She’s done the calculations and any other way of retaliating just doesn’t work out.

Ashish: I see what you mean.

Alex: And I mean, both are true. That’s why it ends with a giant spider, but the spider is scared.

Ashish: I think it comes down to whether you see the life with Helen as a return to the norm or a change of it. So part of the theory is that Adam is moving into this life that is very unfamiliar to him with Helen, but I think there is evidence that it’s actually Adam/Anthony moving back into a life he’s forgotten, since he has spent so long in the identity that he assumed to cheat on Helen, that now that he has returned to her the identity he’s returned to feels totally unfamiliar to himand throughout the movie he conflates women in his dreams with these spider-hybrids, sexually tantalizing but lurking quite dangerously.

Alex: Team Anthony or team Adam. Sure, and that’s kind of supported by that revelation of sorts where his mother mentions he should stop trying to be an actor and then in hindsight, the fact he hasn’t been back at the agency in 6 months.

Ashish: Yeah exactly, I think the moment where you first get clued in that they are the same person is that conversation with the mom where you realize she has somehow raised both Adam and Anthony.

Alex: Two failed children, a mother’s worst nightmare.