“Enemy” is a movie that aspires to art. Many critics, as quick to praise the unintelligible as they are to dump on the obvious, love this movie.
They anoint director Denis Villeneuve as a brilliant independent (“Incendies,” “Prisoners”) and compare his fashionable discomfort to that given us so generously by David Lynch and Roman Polanski. They call “Enemy” a “mindbender” and a “study in psychosexuality” while passing conveniently over the fact that it is dishonest. But I’m ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning and work up to the dishonest.
The film opens with scenes of stone-faced men arriving at a members-only underground club where they ogle a parade of women and spiders. The spiders, we expect, will be of significant symbolic importance.
Without explanation, the camera jumps to Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a withdrawn college professor whose dullness deadens his students into glassy eyed stillness. Adam goes home to Mary (Melanie Laurent). After spotting his clone while watching a movie, he embarks on an agonizingly slow journey to find him. That would be Anthony, a bit-part actor who lives with Helen (Sarah Gadon).
If that sounds interesting, trust me, the audience is given no clues to ponder during the dull process of two men engaged in a wordless dance of shock at their joint identity – all this in semidarkness to an ominous soundtrack. “Turn on the lights, pull up the shades!” is what we want to howl, but no, they stare endlessly in the meaningful dark.
Our impatience is eroded further by the confusion of a cast that consists of one man playing two, and two tall beautiful blondes who are distinguishable as they float through the men’s lives only by the pregnancy of one of them. We are reduced to trying to figure out whether we are watching Adam or Anthony according to the clothes each is wearing at the moment – Adam in professorial tweed, Anthony in motorcycle garb. When they decide to trade identities – and clothes – and return each to the other’s woman, I gave up.
Normally, it would be a compliment to say that Jake Gyllenhaal plays Adam/Anthony with subtle changes of expression, but just try watching two guys move slowly through prolonged silence that promises much and produces nothing. And that is the dishonesty. It’s at this point that we are supposed to admit that our need to understand is a prosaic reaction to art. But there I go being ordinary again.
Any three people will give three different versions of what this movie is about. Is it, as Adam’s mother (Isabella Rossellini, in a far too brief appearance) suggests, simply her son’s twisted fantasy, his futile desire to be an actor instead of a teacher? Or is it that artistically creative mind-bending study of psychosexuality hinted at in that first sex club scene?
If you see this movie, and I would suggest you not, ask yourself if you got a square deal from the filmmakers.
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