1 + 1 = 1

(Canada/Spain, 90 min.)
Dir. Denis Villeneuve, Writ. Javier Gullón
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini.
Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy. An eOne Films release.
“1+1=1” says a mathematical equation that deduces a troubling revelation in Denis Villeneuve’s masterful Incendies. Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and her twin, Simon (Maxim Gaudette), are faced with a horrible conclusion when searching for two different men as part of their mother’s last quest. It might be no coincidence that the answer for Incendies offers the riddle for Villeneuve’s next film, Enemy, in which a man’s worst enemy is himself. One plus one equals one in Enemy, and the absence of a two results in chaos.

“Chaos is order merely waiting to be deciphered,” reads the epigraph for Enemy and José Saramago’s novel The Double on which Enemy is based. It might be a droll stroke of luck that this line comes from The Book of Contraries, but I suspect that Mr. Saramago probably chose that source on purpose. The Double might not be the great writer’s best book, but it’s a great example of his astute philosophical literariness, as few people can make a 300-page tale about a man sifting through video tapes a mind-bending page-turner.

Villeneuve draws the audience into his web of streetcar-crossed wires as he begins this film much like he does with his adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s Incendies by offering a visual prologue to the story that is unique to the film. While Incendies has a brilliant visual key to its Greek tragedy with an Oedipal tattoo (and a memorable use of a Radiohead song), Enemy preambles the Saramago novel with a Lynchian peek into a dark snarly web. A dimly lit room sees a group of men salivating like pigs while a beautiful dancer pleasures herself before them. By her side is another nude dancer, only this one ensnares her male viewers with a seductive dance that skirts stilettos around a spider. If the rules of arty filmmaking say that all a movie needs is a girl and a gun, then Enemy suggests that the combo of a girl and an arachnid fires a much more palpable shot.

Enemy then delves into a characteristically Saramago-ish story as it tells of a meek teacher named Adam (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who sees his doppelgänger while watching a movie. Adam, seeing his mirror image in a far more exciting form, must confront his double, a hack actor named Anthony St. Clair, and, in turn, Adam’s nightmare by offering an elliptical mélange of the ugly world he inhabits and the alluring, albeit terrifying, dream place in which his alter ego reigns king.

Enemy speeds through The Double’s lengthy process that sees Adam (who sports the uncinematic name of Tertuliano Máximo Afonso in the book) sift through a stack of videos to find a name that is just an IMDb click away. Instead, Villeneuve provides the eerie glimpse of Anthony in a hokey bellhop costume and then returns to the scene of the crime as Adam revisits the film in a nightmare. The film, entitled Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, is a farcically Almodóvar-esque bit of overwrought stylishness. Life only looks this sleek and sexy in the movies. Adam’s real world, with “real” defined in the loosest terms, is an ugly place.

Villeneuve’s situation of Adam’s story into the concrete jungle of Toronto might be Enemy’s most notable departure from its source. Saramago’s tales usually unfold in anonymous allegorylands (or, in some cases, they’re set in a literary doppelgänger of Portugal), but an introductory shot of the CN Tower-marked cityscape and a cut to the web of streetcar wires put Enemy in a city that is distinctly Toronto. Villeneuve’s Toronto, however, resembles a relative of David Cronenberg’s Toronto: it’s sinister in its familiarity. Villeneuve and cinematographer Nicholas Bolduc (Rebelle) offer a smoggy and jaundiced glimpse of Hogtown that might be the most unflattering image of Toronto since Rob Ford. The result is a creation of Toronto that is both unique and placeless. Enemy subversively spits in the face of the conundrum that Canadian films must balance the specific and the universal, for Enemy`s setting is unmistakably Toronto, but nobody on earth would want to live in a city that looks as inhospitable as this one does.

Adam and Anthony’s worlds are themselves a set of tense dualities. Adam enjoys rough sex with his leggy girlfriend Marie (Mélanie Laurent) while Anthony is expecting a baby with his delicate looking wife, Helen (Canadian Screen Award winner Sarah Gadon). Their clothes are obvious binary markers, as are their modes of transportation and their apartments: Adam wears a suit and drives an old car to his characterless apartment while Anthony is a leather-clad motorcyclist with a swanky apartment.

The most tangible element that differentiates the two men, though, is Gyllenhaal’s impressive incarnation of the dual roles. One can tell the two doubles apart simply by their demeanor. Gyllenhaal carries himself sullenly and pathetically as Adam while Anthony is a cocky and brooding mass of energy. It’s no wonder that Adam is intrigued. Enemy marks a notable pairing of Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve and makes the film a back-to-back success after Prisoners.

Especially impressive, too, is Gadon as Helen. Enemy arguably offers Gadon her best role to date as her fragile yet complex character offers the lone marker of sanity in this deranged film. Helen’s cracked-up situation between the doppelgängers offers the access point for the audience. Laurent is good in an underwritten role, although she’s stalked in a terrific centrepiece sequence, and Isabella Rossellini makes a memorable cameo appearance as a voice of reason to complement Helen. Enemy, however, throws the audience’s allegiance on its head in a climax that sees the good girl enjoy a psychosexual thrill and devours her in a monstrous finale. The final shot of Enemy is a complete disavowal of clarity and closure. It’s a preposterously gutsy move that invites a slow clap, a bravo, and an almighty outburst of “What the fuck!” from the audience.

Mr. Villeneuve’s adaptation, on the other hand, is both a pretentious rendering of the novel and a daringly brilliant adaptation that reimagines Saramago’s comma-laden prose into truly cinematic terms. If The Double is chaos waiting to be deciphered, then Enemy is chaos incarnate. It’s a complete mind-mess of a movie; a suburban multiplex’s worst nightmare and a highfalutin cinephile’s dream. Enemy, accentuated by a delightfully baroque score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, will have viewers clearing cobwebs from their minds and itching at imaginary spiders crawling up their legs.

Seeing Enemy for the second time is like being squished between the covers of The Book of Contraries and pressed with the force of a vice. Enemy really comes together in the end. Move a spider to the middle and the whole thing clicks!

It’s funny, though, that Enemy is a film to bring about such a reversal of opinion. One might at first see the film as nothing but a random mix of scenes slapped together, but this nightmarish fever dream is certainly a film that demands repeat viewings. The intricate editing by Matthew Hannam weaves between reality and the subconscious with just the right fluidity and pace to leave the film with a tangible haze of avant-garde weirdness, but the precision in the cutting and in the sound mix leave enough glue to put it together. The film is an enigmatic web of contraries, doubles, and reflections as Adam confronts Anthony and, in turn, faces his own insecurities and failures as a human being. Consequently, Enemy seems like the most fitting film to make a reviewer eat crow.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Enemy is now playing in wide release.

I saw Enemy for the second and, in a way, first time on Friday after seeing it in a test screening last March. Saramago is my favourite author and Villeneuve is one of my favourite filmmakers, so I probably set expectations for Enemy so high that no film could meet them. As I mentioned tangentially in my Canadian Screen Awards post and elsewhere (mostly since a few followers had pointed out its omission from my Canadian film coverage), I was disappointed with the film in its unfinished form, but it was, after all, an incomplete film, hence no review and such. After seeing the final cut, though, I’ll fully admit that I was wrong.

What did you think of Enemy?