Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy
Denis Villeneuve keeps busy. After being nominated for the best foreign film Oscar for 2010’s Incendies, the local director made two movies in short succession. Prisoners, with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, came out last year, and this weekend sees the release of Enemy, also starring Gyllenhaal.
Though they’re both dark, stylish and unsettling films, the resemblance ends there: while Prisoners was firmly in the Hollywood thriller genre, Enemy is a surreal, metaphorical tale told with a dream logic evoking David Lynch and David Cronenberg. It’s also one of Villeneuve’s best films to date.
In Enemy, based on a novel by José Saramago (Blindness), Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a depressed professor who randomly discovers that he has a doppelganger: Anthony, a struggling actor. As Adam becomes obsessed with finding out more about his double, he finds his life turning into a nightmarish maze.
“It’s a film that was born out of a friendship,” explains Villeneuve, who just won the best director prize for Enemy at last weekend’s Canadian Screen Awards. “I wanted to work with Niv Fichman, a producer from Toronto.” Fichman had the rights to the Saramago novel, and when Villeneuve read it, he recalls, “I had a coup de foudre for two reasons. First, it explored the idea of repetition as hell — repetition in history, in an individual, in a couple — as a cycle that you can’t get out of.
“The second reason was… I saw the chance to work on a project where I could spend a lot of time with a single actor, and develop a relationship with him. I’d never had the chance to do that before. I needed that to evolve as a director.”
He made a good call; Gyllenhaal, full of nervous energy, balances the two roles with extraordinary subtlety. The small cast is rounded out with strong turns from Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) as Adam’s girlfriend and Sarah Gadon (who appeared in Cronenberg’s last two films as well as his son Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral) as Anthony’s wife.
The film is shot, and conspicuously set, in Toronto. I floated to Villeneuve my theory that having made Quebec films, an international film and a Hollywood film, this was his Canadian film. “You might be right,” he laughs. “To make a film about sexuality and the subconscious, with insect imagery — to make that in Toronto, in Cronenberg’s backyard, for sure it’s a bit baveux” (a Quebec expression whose closest English equivalent would be “cheeky”).
“But it’s a bit of a love letter to Toronto,” he explains. “The book takes place in a megalopolis — a city where there’s a population so enormous that it creates solitude, and also the possibility that there could be a person identical to you who you’ve never met. There’s not a lot of cities in North America with the kind of sprawl Toronto has — it’s immense.” He adds, “It’s not a city like New York or Chicago, that have been captured a lot by people who live there. In the imagination, it’s kind of virgin territory. That was pretty exciting.”
Though Enemy isn’t a political film, I couldn’t help but think of current issues — locally, nationally and internationally — when Gyllenhaal’s professor is shown lecturing about dictatorships. “The film is about an individual who’s led to understand that he’s going to repeat the same mistakes,” says Villeneuve. “Socially, we repeat the same mistakes over the generations. We have trouble evolving, breaking patterns and getting out of them. How, as human beings, are we going to get out of this infernal historical spiral? That’s what the film wants to put into relief.” ■
Enemy opens today