Deciphering “Enemy”: Working Through Denis Villeneuve’s Thought-Provoking Psychological Thriller

enemy-bannerIn Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, which is based on the wondrous novel by José Saramago, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a man torn in two, struggling to control the competing forces in his life. While quite different from Arrival, Villenueve’s most recent film,  Enemy is a similarly inventive, curious exploration of time and how it shapes the way we constitute ourselves and our place in the world. Arrival is among my most memorable filmgoing experiences of 2016. However, while Arrival’s themes are likely more intriguing, Enemy had a much more convoluted and open-ended structure and story. What follows is the outline I was compelled to write upon my first viewing of Enemy.

Late to the game, I only just this morning saw the Jake Gyllenhaal-helmed thriller “Enemy,” which came out earlier this year to mixed but all-around bewildered critical reception. The film had confused everybody; and few, if no, critics had even attempted to unravel it. Wanting to see if others had read the film as I had, I researched interpretations and explanations but found none that were fully satisfying. Most backed up my general idea of what is going on in Enemy, but there were holes to be found in every argument. So I decided to write my own piece on the film, which will double as my review.

For all its too-obvious symbolisms, Denis Villeneuve’s film had me hooked for all its ninety minutes and stayed with me long after, as I worked through its key moments in a ravenous effort to piece them together. In this way, it reminded me of my (significantly more) obsessive response to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive–an albeit more beautiful, convoluted and cryptic film. It functions as a mind-teaser, dropping hints and thematic imagery throughout and ending with an utterly unpredictable image that nevertheless feels absolutely right. It’s not going to satisfy all audiences, especially those seeking straight-forward answers and resolutions. There are several points that one must recognize in order to “understand” the film. While I here attempt to lay out the entryways to deciphering the codes of the seemingly chaotic Enemy, I too recognize that there are questions to which there are no clear answers and elements that are purposefully contradictory. What follows includes spoilers, and I only suggest reading if you have already seen the film.

Before I start, I want to say that Gyllenhaal’s poised, nuanced performance plays a large role in what makes the film a successful psychological thriller. He plays the two parts distinctively yet with a strong sense of what unites these two men (other than physical appearance). Without the aid of a clear physical marker distinguishing the two, the actor still manages to always let us know which of the two versions of the man he is playing. He is good at being many things all at once: bewildered, sad, lonely, excited, self-loathing, and self-confident. Without that contradictorily sameness and yet simultaneous clear distinction, the film would not be as effectively haunting.

General Reading

I believe the film is concerned with a man struggling with marriage who suffers a mental crisis when his wife becomes pregnant. What ensues is a psychological game with himself to recuperate the memories he has repressed in order to find his way to back to the family home that both terrifies and soothes him.

From the lectures Adam gives as a professor to the repeated dialogue and actions throughout, the film gives many clues that what we are watching does not necessarily happen in chronological order.  The professor, offering his students (a.k.a the audience) ways into reading the film, tells us that it’s important to note that there are patterns that repeat themselves. Enemy is structured around repetition and making the same errors over and over again; thus, we cannot trust that what we are watching takes place in linear fashion.

It is likely much of what we see has happened repeatedly, especially the womanizing. We can also not trust that all that we see happens in “reality” and not just the mind of Anthony. The hint that tells us that Anthony plays out many of these scenarios with “himself” is when he practices his speech to Adam in front of his bathroom mirror. (Note that the first time Adam calls and is answered by Anthony, he is in a bathroom; when the camera cuts to Anthony finishing the phone call, he is just coming out of the bathroom, likely having delivered the two halves of the conversation.) He is an ACTOR above all else, and I believe we are watching this actor’s own movie, in which he plays two roles, himself and Adam, his look-alike who tracks him down.

Thus, it is also clear that Anthony and Adam are the same person and that Anthony has invented Adam as an alter-ego just as he had invented Daniel as his acting persona. They are therefore never in the same room together with a third person. Everything that one knows, the other knows, too. And Adam is slowly finding his way back to Anthony’s life by following the clues that yet linger in his subconscious– beginning with the movie. He tells himself (in the form of a colleague–notice how no one else is in the room) to watch this “local” (and seemingly bad) movie. We know this is happening in his head, especially because he tells the “other” teacher: “I’ll keep it in mind.” This leads him to Daniel (Anthony’s acting name), who is sent a key by Anthony, leading Adam to the address where he finds his/Anthony’s wife. The further this goes, the more closely they begin to resemble each other and the more the wife and mistress figure out that he is leading a double life (with the mistress realizing this only at the end, with the mark of his wedding ring).

He clearly has a strong sex drive – hence the cheating, the sex club at the start of the film, and the spider imagery that is related to women and their power to entrap male prey– and wants to possess both the bachelor and married life but cannot mentally handle having them at the same time.

On the one hand, he is an actor with a nice apartment and beautiful wife. On the other, he has a mistress to whom he is only sexually attracted, lives in a rundown apartment with only a bed and desk, and is a professor. They each suppress information about the other. Adam has thus torn out his wife’s face from the photo of the two of them, which we later see intact in Anthony’s apartment.

The key to the sex club is one of the main keys to the film–to getting Adam to find Anthony and, at the end, leading him back to the club where his sexapades are on full display.

Much of what we see is also not “real”, and this is stressed by how much time is spent in bed, dreaming, and the abundance of spider imagery that is both realistic–the wires on the roads–and surrealist, as in the giant spider hovering over Toronto. Anthony is clearly a man who is haunted and is grappling with the mysteries and fears he has hidden in his subconscious. One of the more effective aspects of the film is its ability–particularly using light, camera angles, and sound–to convey and impart to the audience that feeling of floating between consciousness and sleep. (He can only recognize himself in the film while he is sleeping. Through these unconscious states, he is able to see things his waking self denies.)

An unease builds as to the reality of what we see. This is why I was not angrily taken aback by the ending. The final appearance of the spider is in line with the total trajectory of the film. It ends with the beginningl however, rather than a small spider easy to crush and in the context of a sex club, there is a large spider in his very own home, where his wife should be. He has unsuccessfully kept those worlds apart; and even in his own mind, he can never succeed in controlling where each version of himself must be and who knows him there. What is most alarming about the ending is not the spider but rather Anthony’s calm, disappointed sigh–which is why I believe he is in part aware of his failed mental compartmentalizing. His will to control is always finally overcome, but nevertheless survives through its repetition.

This is my general reading of the film, to which I will add a few more details and a conclusion below.


Some Details: Wives, Mistresses, Sex Clubs, and Spiders

Sarah Godon does an impressive job as the wife Helen. She knows of Anthony’s infidelity and is suspicious of him (as when he receives the phone calls, and she thinks it’s his mistress or a jealous husband, which is not coincidentally who Anthony himself becomes at the end, looping back to this moment), yet it is clear she loves him and wants to make it work with him as a family. She is as conflicted as Anthony, but, rather than invent fantasies and doubles, accepts the contradictions and attempts to work through them. She learns of Anthony’s other life as Adam, whom she visits at his school. This is why at the end she asks him, “How was school?” She accepts him and wants to work through the opposition of men that lives within her husband.

Six months is the time it took him to grow the beard, and it marks the passage of time after three events: 1. Anthony stopped acting and became Adam the professor, 2. Helen became pregnant with Adam’s child, and 3. The key to the sex club changed.

A word on the sex club: this is a place where only men have faces. The women are merely sex objects; seemingly fifteen foot women (an image that reappears as the poster of the film “Attack of the Fifteen Foot Woman” is clear in the video store) in heels ready to stomp–made taller by low camera angles and their physical placement on an elevated platform above the men–are there in the complete service to the men. No female face is discernible. Clearly, this is a place (whether real or not) meant to escape reality and resemble a dream. There, the spider is small and easily crushed; the heel suspends over the spider, controlling it by threatening its destruction. Yet, it doesn’t get crushed. Otherwise, there would be no film.

The visit with his mother confirms that time is aberrant – with the phone message left at the beginning seeming to take place at the end, and her message containing information that contradicts their other conversation – and that he and Anthony are the same. At the visit, the mother tells us that Adam is in reality 1. a womanizer (like Anthony), 2. a failed actor (like Anthony), and 3. likes blueberries (like Anthony). He seems surprised at all three revelations, which further emphasizes his repression of Anthony.

On the flip side, the film could easily be about Adam, who creates the persona of Anthony, through whom he develops this other life of being a stable husband/father and has a career of an actor (Daniel). The acting persona would then be an extension of an extension of a personality. Who is “first” – Adam or Anthony – is really insignificant to understanding the film, and that mystery is part of the plot itself (the point, I believe, is that one can never be sure).

The final car accident is likely both an event that happened and an event that is replayed in Anthony’s mind at the time that he returns to his wife (as Adam). Whether invented or based on reality, it marks the death of one of the versions in order for one person to again reemerge. “I’ll be out of your life forever,” says Anthony after coercing Adam to lend him his girlfriend. As any cheater who wants to turn faithful, he’s convinced that just one more time–one more tryst with a mistress–and then all will be good again and no more cheating will ever again occur. But, of course, Anthony leaves the key for Adam, the last piece of the person whom he has repressed through Adam. And, with the split gone, Adam/Anthony takes the key, knows what it is for (the spider/woman sex club), and decides to return.

The cycle starts again, with all the pieces revealed, ending in failure (or success, depending on your perspective), and needing to repeat. The tone of his sigh is not one of anger or fright but rather benign resignation. The first time as tragedy, says Marx, and the second time as farce. If the accident happened before any of this, it was dark and tragic. If this time it only happened to return him to his wife, it is indeed a farce–in the sense that it is theater (or the movies, or the circus, as Adam points out to his class). It only opens the door to a deeper level of his subconscious where his fears still reside. The spider has never left; allowed to live, it has only grown larger.


In Conclusion: Hegelian Dialectics

The director weaves lots of thematic imagery and metaphor throughout the film, in both subtle and overt ways. Both are successful, I think, and make for a layered, engaging experience. I was never bored, and I was compelled to pay attention. You have Hegelian dialectic in play. On the chalk board, you see notes of the “thesis”/”antithesis”/”synthesis” framework. Thus, if you apply this structure to the film, Enemy has  his thesis, the protagonist; his antithesis, the antagonist; and finally how the two converge, erasing their singularities while being replaced by a higher order being that both consumes and negates them. One can only recognize who they are by seeing themselves as an Other, as outside of themselves. Adam literally finds himself through Anthony. Only in him can he see himself. Think too of how he must put the photo of himself side by side with Anthony in order to see the resemblance. He can only be sure of himself through this picture. He can only see himself in the film by going to sleep and dreaming Enemy.



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