Blog Directory CineVerse: The devil is in the duplicity

The devil is in the duplicity

Monday, April 26, 2021

Jake Gyllenhaal works twice as hard to impress us with his acting chops in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, a movie that can cause you to do a double-take time and again with its themes of identity blending, disturbing deceit, and arachnid anxiety. It’s a difficult picture to decipher, but patient scrutiny will yield pivotal clues that make for a fascinating analysis and conversation with fellow film lovers. CineVerse got caught in its tangled web last week and arrived at the following notions (to hear a recording of our group discussion of this film, click here).

How are Adam and Anthony similar yet different?

  • Adam is a frustrated college teacher: He clearly doesn’t make much money, his girlfriend doesn’t enjoy or want to have sex with him, and his students don’t appear engaged during his classes.
  • Anthony is much the opposite: He’s wealthy, successful, beloved by his pregnant wife, and apparently happy and satisfied. But unlike Adam, he cheats on his partner, enjoys playing the role of sexual predator, and attends secret sex clubs.

What is the proof that this story should not be taken literally?

  • Adam and Anthony are actually the same person – a man suffering from a split personality syndrome who is married to a pregnant wife but cheating on her with his girlfriend. Adam is the man Anthony ultimately will become by choosing to remain with his pregnant spouse: tamed and reliable but unfulfilled and disempowered. He chooses to kill off the negative “Anthony” part of his personality (and end his philandering) by crashing the car. But he identifies Helen as the empowered female “other” that will threaten and devour him when he sees her as a giant spider.
  • Proof of this: Helen refers to Anthony having a good day at school; Adam’s mother suggests that he should quit movie acting; Adam and Anthony are never seen together with a third person present; Anthony in front of a mirror rehearses what he’s going to say to Adam; what are the odds that a person has an identical non-twin who also has an identical scar in the same location and are living in the same city?
  • Blogger Ryan Thompson wrote: “By using the concept of doubling, Villeneuve is able to set up two contrasting characters, one who has an unfulfilling life and one who is fulfilled, in order to assert the idea that, for men, marriage and building a family results in indulging in the mundane and giving up on personal desires… the film is implying men have better lives when they are not focusing on building a family. Yet, interestingly enough, the film's resolution results in Anthony dying in a car accident and Adam choosing to live with Anthony’s wife, suggesting that even though Anthony understands the disadvantages of being married, he is still drawn to it.”
  • With this reading of the film, the story serves as more of a metaphor or allegory than a narrative that should be taken literally (as with films like The Lobster). Proof of this idea is the gigantic arachnid walking amongst the skyscrapers, which isn’t really happening in this story but which serves as a visual symbol of Adam’s growing dread and a foreshadowing of the last scene in the bedroom.
  • Despite discarding his Anthony persona, Adam will repeat the same mistakes as Anthony, as he’s chosen to use the new key to revisit the sex club—even though he’s chosen to stick with Helen.

Themes and motifs examined

  • Chaos is order yet undeciphered. Even in the most convoluted of tales there is truth, structure, and meaning if you opt to untangle the thematic webs. Adam needs to remove chaos from his life by choosing a life of order and predictability.
  • Male fears of commitment, surrendering personal ambitions, loss of individual expression, losing sexual agency, and acquiescing to marriage, parenthood, and domesticity.
  • Females, including Anthony’s pregnant wife and the upside-down-walking spider head woman, are equated with arachnid-like creatures that frighten Adam.
  • Creeping totalitarianism. Forrest Wickman of Slate wrote: “I think ultimately it’s a parable about what it’s like to live under a totalitarian state without knowing it… The central irony in all of this is that even the main character, though he’s an expert on the ways of totalitarian governments, doesn’t see the web that’s overtaken the city until he’s already stuck in it.”
  • Doubling, twinning, and doppelgängers. Anthony and Adam are identical; Anthony has two names; their significant others also look alike; Adam tells his class “Everything in history happens twice,” and that the first go-round is a tragedy while the second is a farce;
  • Spiders, as evidenced by the giant spider on the horizon, the spider-faced woman in the dream, the tarantula stepped on by the high-heeled woman in the sex club, the giant spider in the film’s last scene, the cobweb appearance of the broken windshield, the pregnant wife (whose belly resembles the bloated abdomen of a spider), and the transit system’s overhead lines. Because so many people have built-in fears of spiders, they serve as a powerful and effective visual motif throughout the movie.

Other films and works of literature that come to mind

  • Works of David Lynch, including Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Eraserhead
  • Puzzle films like Memento and Inception
  • Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Through a Glass Darkly
  • Eyes Wide Shut
  • Adaptation
  • Fight Club
  • Shutter Island
  • Dead Ringers
  • Sisters
  • Orphan Black
  • Freaky Friday
  • Dostoevsky’s The Double
  • Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

Other films by Denis Villeneuve

  • Arrival
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Sicario
  • Prisoners

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