Have you ever found yourself staring blankly into the mirror at your reflection, sensing that you really didn’t know the person on the other side? As children, it is likely that we sometimes wonder if that “person” over there has another life, a better one than the one we happen to be living. This idea has spawned countless stories, passed along as bedtime and/or camp-side tales, then later on as richly woven literary excursions down dark mental and existential corridors. Such are the “what ifs” of the doppelgangers.
Director and writer Denis Villeneuve (the French-Canadian whose Incendies was a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee in 2011) arrived at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival with a double feature (Enemy and Prisoners) infused with its own moody concoction pairing doubles within doubles, while joining a festival slate that included a couple of its own mirror image narratives. Thinking that I had stumbled upon a curious bit of déjà vu, I double-checked the listing for The Face of Love — which featured Ed Harris as a man who bears a more than passing resemblance to the late husband of a widow (Annette Bening) who finds herself irresistibly attracted to this new, living incarnation — and Richard Ayoade’s appropriately titled The Double — starring Jesse Eisenberg as the titular twins-not-twins — to confirm this re-emerging trend. The Double, in fact, draws from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella (with a screenplay co-written by Ayoade and Avi Korine).
Villeneuve also reaches for literary grounding with Enemy. His murky hallucinogenic trip of a narrative is an adaptation of a José Saramago novel but, truth be told, the film also seems inspired by an unsettling merging of David Lynch and Albert Camus.
Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) stumbles through his days as a professor lecturing on failing to appreciate the lessons of history. He’s a bearded recluse — who Camus might define as a man unlikely to cry at his own mother’s funeral (a nod to The Stranger) — yet, in today’s parlance, he’s a mere handgun or two away from an explosive rendezvous with the news cycle, dispassionately banging away at a woman (Mélanie Laurent) who might be deluding herself into believing she’s his girlfriend, despite all evidence to the contrary. When he rents a random movie and discovers a minor player named Anthony (also Gyllenhaal) wandering through a couple of the frames, Adam embraces his inner stalker and seeks out the actor.
To be fair, Anthony’s not exactly much more together than Adam. He’s got a pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) who doesn’t seem to trust his fidelity (apparently with good reason) and he’s a little too quick to get over his initial distrust of Adam and his intentions. Before long, Adam and Anthony are at odds, engaging in an escalating series of power plays to one-up the other in an effort to exert a degree of dominance over the other, to prove their status as the top or primary version of “their being.”
The intrigue here is less in this particular film, though, than in the larger one-two punch Villeneuve threw at the festival with Enemy’s premiere following closely on the heels of his higher profile feature Prisoners, which also stars Gyllenhaal. In that film, Gyllenhaal inhabits the role of a dogged detective (named Loki) on the trail of a pair of missing girls who seemingly disappeared while their neighboring families shared a holiday dinner. Far from being the trickster of Norse mythology, this Loki is a brooding man of action, willing to bend (or even break) a rule or two in pursuit of justice. Gyllenhaal buries himself in a twitchy persona, a borderline character lacking interpersonal skills who would find it hard to stare at his own reflection, and Villeneuve deposits him in an ominous world, where such qualities justifiably can be viewed as positive traits. Unlike, say in Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which ends with a ray of hopefulness and sunshine, Prisoners strands audiences in a nether region, betwixt and between light and dark, but tilting toward a shadow world.
Enemy hops aboard a more surreal crazy train and rumbles off the tracks away from the suspenseful thrills of a noirish reality where evil waits in the corner. Villeneuve takes far too much time walking us right up to this phantasmal version of our fears, forcing us to stare the irrational refracted reflections in the eye until we fall into the void. Banality, it seems, is the real Enemy here. But if that’s the case, why give it such a handsome and familiar face like Gyllenhaal’s? (Now playing at Mariemont Theatre) (R) Grade: B-
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