Movie a Day Blog is all for the obscure and elusive in cinema when it works. But when surrealism, exaggeration, unreality and symbolism fail to gel into something that is at least comprehensible, the frustrated viewer is left with a feeling of having wasted one’s time.
I am that frustrated viewer and ENEMY (2013) is the maddening film. I can watch a similarly incomprehensible film such as UPSTREAM COLOR (2013) and feel intrigued and stimulated, rather than bitter, the sentiment ENEMY engendered within me .
Denis Villeneuve is the French Canadian director who made the family gem INCENDIES (2010) and the underrated Oscar contender PRISONERS (2013), also starring Jake Gyllenhall, who is featured in not one, but the two central roles in ENEMY.
Perhaps Villeneuve is one of those directors who trades a commercial movie (PRISONERS) for a more personal one (ENEMY), but either this film is so personal that I failed to discern its greater meaning, or Villeneuve just flubbed his attempt at psychological surrealism.
Gyllenhaal plays both a milquetoast college prof named Adam and his doppelganger, a good-looking and fairly successful actor named Anthony. They look identical, of course, but dress and act differently. They each have an attractive blonde woman in their lives: the actor’s wife, played by Sarah Gadon, is six months pregnant, while Adam’s girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) drifts in and out of his boring life in a series of joyless sexual encounters.
Nothing much happens in ENEMY until the two A guys run into each other, profess shock and awe, and then, predictably and largely unexcitingly, all heck breaks loose. Most of their stunts reminded me of a comic strip I devoured when growing up called “The Jackson Twins,” in which twin cute high school girls went out on each other’s dates and fooled their dentist, etc.
Oh, and there’s an opening scene in ENEMY, reminiscent of certain porn sites that feature attractive naked women squishing insects with their high heels, that carries great significance in ENEMY, and I don’t have any idea what that significance is, other than being careful about which insect you choose to step on.
Villeneuve is a slick and accomplished filmmaker, and he keeps us guessing who’s with who and doing and saying what successfully enough to give ENEMY some feeling of momentum. But there really isn’t a plot, so you’re left meditating on Gyllenhaal’s obviously divided character. Is he a boring academic regretting that he didn’t follow up his stab at acting, and dreading becoming a new father? Or is a an actor imagining himself in a different role, that of a boring college professor?
These might be titillating questions if ENEMY bothered to provide any meaningful answers. But Villeneuve is, in my estimation, being perversely obscure, to the point that I began to actively dislike either iteration of Gyllenhaall, and could care less what happened to one or both of them.
That is not a productive attitude for the filmmaker to engender, but the ending reveals that Villeneuve could care less what he’s shown or told us, because it’s an ending only he can understand. I checked and discovered varied and wild speculation online about what Villeneuve did or did not intend with symbolic elements of ENEMY, but a movie is not a baseball game. You shouldn’t need a scorecard to understand what the players are doing out there on the field, and that the point of the game is to win or lose. If ENEMY is a baseball game, then Villeneuve loses.