Sometimes, there are event films that one has just totally missed. Missed the film, and missed the event. Hardly even heard of its existence – let alone the hype, the buzz, the speedy for/against discussions that may flare up and burn themselves out within a finite period of (social) media time.
Some movies stick around as sturdy cults for years, or come back in revived form that way. Things that cross populist, academic and critical discussion. In recent years, stuff like Ex Machina (2014), Annihilation (2018), Her (2013) and Under the Skin (2013) fill this bill – human and machine, human and alien, the anthropocene, all that. Or the Memento (2000) to Inception (2010), and beyond, line: puzzle/mind-game films and their supposedly complex narrative formats, a long-lasting fad (for a more recent, wobbly example, see Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken ).
It’s strange to stumble upon the black hole, the residue of a truly dead event-film. What happened to it? It burnt out too fast, a dark star. Its enigmas sparked only so much speculation, before falling into bored or indifferent silence. Nothing to go back to and work over in class papers, opinion pieces, socio-cultural-zeitgeist surveys. Puzzle solved, case closed.
Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is among these burnt-out films. For whatever reason, I wasn’t in the orbit to catch this event during 2013 (festival season) or 2014 (general release). I stumbled upon its lustreless corpse, online, in 2020. I was in the mood to watch a modern film about doubles – I’d just logged my own audio commentary on Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror (1946), and I twigged to the fact that Villeneuve and his screenwriter Javier Gullón were adapting José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double (the author died in 2010 at 87, before this film adaptation came around to trouble him).
At the start – actually, for quite a large percentage of its 90 minute running time – I was surprised. Multi-surprise: that I’d never managed to see it; that I couldn’t call to mind much that had been written about it; and that it actually seems to be pretty good.
Reasonably inventive in its doppelgänger moves (never an easy trick to pull off well), consistently well-directed in its uncanny mood. Some psychological, genuinely perverse intrigue (doubles sleeping with each other’s partners – an aspect taken more or less directly from Saramago’s novel). Arresting angles on architecture, presented in flat, queasy colourings. Good, restrained use of Daniel Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans’ modernistic score.
But the film has a shock, surprise ending – literally, in its penultimate shot. Literally hardly one second’s worth. But I suspect it was that one quick shot which banished the film from any posterity it might have enjoyed – as well as instantly extinguishing, in real time, my impression of its general quality. All that film for the sake of this one, nutty shot? Not worth another look, or any reconsideration, clearly.
Piqued, I swiftly found, online, the ancient commentaries from 6 or 7 years ago explaining this shot (in which – to say no more – a spider appears). It links, clearly, to the enigmatic, Brisseaun Secret Things-style opening scene – in which, as it turns out (and this is among the clever moves) the character we think Jake Gyllenhaal is playing (Adam the History prof) is actually not that character (he is, rather, Adam’s twin-double, Daniel/Anthony the B movie actor). The vision/apparition links also to a dream-image (strange woman on a corridor ceiling), and what one might have assumed was a B movie clip (giant spider hovers over disquieted Toronto) but which is really a tribute to a famous sculpture by Louise Bourgeois (!). It all adds up, say the commentators and indeed Villeneuve himself, if you just think back over it a bit.
I’m thinking back over it a bit. Something to do with mothers (Isabella Rossellini is on hand to sow rather than dispel the reigning hints and ambiguities), sex, pregnancy, men, women, power, control (jagged, unreal returns to Adam’s socio-cultural-zeitgeist lectures drop heavy clues here). Men’s fear of women and the need to dominate them (Adam’s sex drive takes an unexpectedly aggressive turn at one point). Are the doubles opposites, or two sides of the same person, or alter ego projection(s) (one-way or two-way, take your pick)? Possibly a little (Lynchian) rum-metaphysics about originals and copies, and exact duplicates unable to inhabit the same time-space continuum! A film in which stray words betray unspoken knowledges on the part of certain characters; where details pointedly not included in scenes, or discrepancies just as pointedly left in, invite what passes these days as “interpretation”, i.e., retroactive plot-puzzle-solving, plugging in the “missing pieces”.
Big deal. The agglomeration, finally, just doesn’t gel; it holds no genuine mystery. And isn’t this also true of Villeneuve’s subsequent ascension into big Hollywood budgets, with Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017)? He’s become the slick maestro of the superficial narrative film dotted with “strong images” (dramatic metaphors!) and what Brian De Palma once accurately called “symbolic stuff”.
But give me Femme Fatale (2002) over (way over) Enemy, any day of the week.
© Adrian Martin 30 May 2020