Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is a film of sheeny surfaces beneath which works a fervid, obscure logic. By Louis Rogers


Like so many of cinema’s college professors, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Adam Bell uses chalk and a blackboard in his classroom, favouring the spider diagram as a means of setting out the key themes of his lecture, and possibly those of the film. In the early scenes of Enemy, we see Adam reeling out the same lines about the repetitiousness of history to class after class against a frantic background of words interconnected with chalk: “history”; “Hegel”; “control”’; “truth”, the last crossed out with an emphatic X.

Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is a film of sheeny surfaces beneath which works a fervid, obscure logic. The Toronto in which it is set is opaque with fog and darkened glass: skyscraper windows, sunglasses, and motorbike helmets all suggest the shiny, undisclosing eyes of an insect – or, as we learn is more to the point, an arachnid. Villeneuve’s camera moves with the otherworldly assurance of a sleepwalker. The film is sparse on dialogue and has just four substantive characters (two of whom could be the same person). At one compellingly unusual moment, Adam walks away from the camera as he takes a call in his flat, continuing to speak from behind a door: we are left to contend with its expressionless surface. Beneath all this, the plot is driven by surreal contrivances of fate, which seem increasingly to tend toward chaos rather than coherence.

At first, Enemy looks like a fairly recognisable thriller, goading us into guessing at the denouement of its doppelgänger riddle. But the mystery only thickens. Throwaway lines from characters who should be underwriting the film’s base reality upend what certainties we had, and a final, absolutely literal hair-raiser of a shot demands total reconsideration. 

The epigraph that opens the film, taken from its source material, José Saramago’s novel The Double, reads: “Chaos is order yet undeciphered”. The characters in the film that follow might be fated to decipher, but they are far from sure of reaching a solution. In Villeneuve’s assured, almost stately depiction of psychic life, the reality of the subconscious is ultimately characterised as chaos, with all the furious but sealed logic of someone else’s indecipherable spider diagram.


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