Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Last year's Prisoners proved that director Denis Villeneuve wanted to be included in the club of contemporary filmmakers trying to become this generation's Hitchcock. David Fincher, generally considered the best, most formalistically proficient director of Hollywood suspense thrillers leads a group that also includes Chris Nolan and Darren Aronofsky. These filmmakers have found a way to use noir techniques that translate into the ironic morality that is sought out by the movie audiences of today. But their films are also made with the utmost seriousness. Villeneuve is a Quebecian diector who seems controlled by these same technical and thematic motifs. Prisoners seemed a bit pulled in different directions; that film was grasping for the chilliness of Zodiac (made by Fincher) but one half of the film's story - one that included a deliberate, overacting Hugh Jackman - forces the movie into the melodrama of Mystic River. The more interesting half, to me, dealt with Jake Gyllenhaal, and Prisoners gave the young actor a role meatier than one he'd had in a while. His latest film, Enemy, also stars Gyllenhaal in another good role. His co-star this time around? Another Jake Gyllenhaal.
Enemy is based on a novel by Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, and his half surreal/half brute reality style is impressed firmly throughout this film. The entire movie is encased in a yellow pall, and the camera is either in a perpetual motion or a strict stillness. Villeneuve and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc use these elements to craft one of the creepiest looking movies I've seen in a while, and takes a narrative that could be stunted into a hackneyed movie script about bizarre coincidence, and transforms it into a palpable suspense film. The film focuses on a history professor in Ontario named Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal), whose mindless cycle of routines within his work and his relationships has started to wear him down. His life has become drab - the specific moments within his life and his sex-based relationship with a French beauty named Mary (Melanie Laurent) have begun to reflect his lectures on the repetition of political history. Adam wishes for a swift change to interrupt the routine but doesn't care much to put in the work to enact it.
When a co-worker endorses a film title to him, Adam surprisingly rents the film and decides to watch it. Enemy gives very little attention to this actual film-within-the-film, except that Adam's unmarked expression afterward seems to show that it didn't give him the kind of pick me up that he wished for. But he is woken up in the middle of the night with a memory, and when he watches the DVD again he notices an extra in the film that looks completely identical to him. The image of the bit performer cannot escape his mind. He googles the actor, gathers further information from the talent agency that represents him; his name is David Saint Claire. He rents Claire's two other film appearances and watches them, but he still isn't satisfied. He goes to the talent agency, gathers the actor's address and finds his home. When he calls the apartment, he speaks with Claire's wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), who doesn't even recognize that it's a different person on the phone. Finally, he is able to get Claire - who's real, non-actor name is Anthony Claire - on the phone and explains the situation. Anthony accuses Adam of being a stalker, but Adam asks if they can meet. Anthony obliges.
When they meet, their levels of curiosity are reversed; Anthony suddenly feels flush with the amount of opportunities that looking like Adam can bring, while Adam, seeing the sinister look on Anthony's face, begins to regret his decision. They not only look exactly the same, but they share the same bodily scars and other individualistic details. The only thing that they don't seem to have in common is personality. Adam's bookishness is faced with the brashness of Anthony, and Anthony quickly looks for ways to manipulate the weaker Adam to his will. As the two men start dabbling in each other's worlds, their actual lives begin to interweave tighter and tighter. Helen begins to suspect that Anthony's strange behavior is evidence of infidelity, which he has committed before. When Adam explains the situation to his mother (played by Isabella Rosellini), she tells him to forget the entire situation - thinking it's another example of his dangerously antisocial behavior. Their crossed paths lead both men into a disturbing sequence of eerie happenings in one of the most consistently unsettling psychosexual thrillers in recent memory.
Where Prisoners left Villeneuve in a derivative purgatory, Enemy feels like a real representation of the true talents as a suspense filmmaker (I still have not seen his 2010 French-language film, Incendies, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar that year - but considering that that film is not a thriller, it doesn't play much in this discussion). Prisoners really looked good, but the slickness of the Roger Deakins cinematography in that film was empty in regards to how it effected the narrative (had it been anyone other than Deakins who was the DP, I don't think it would have gotten that Best Cinematography nomination). Enemy creates an entire mise-en-scene of suffocating suspense and sexual intrigue, and all of that starts with how it's shot. Villeneuve and Bolduc do not load the film with overtly complicated shots - though, to be sure, there are a few spread around - but simply create the menacing mood by coating the film in a bile-like yellow and playing off of the eyes of its star. A moment where the glowing light of a laptop reflect off of Gyllenhaal's penetrating eyes is all this film needs to show to make your hair stand up.
Gyllenhaal has always been a strange film star. He's got a prettiness to him that so obvious that it seems redundant for a movie character to play upon it. He tried playing the role of a movie star - a period that included Love and Other Drugs and Prince of Persia - but it didn't seem to suit him. That is to say, he didn't seem too comfortable in that position and the audience weren't coming out to see him anyway. With Villeneuve, he may have finally found the filmmaker who understands the way in which he works best: a moody, borderline depressed figure who recognizes his own sexual power. This is certainly the most interesting role since 2007's Zodiac (directed by Fincher), and probably his best performance since 2005's Jarhead. His effeminate handsomeness means that he is certainly capable of expressing sensitivity, but he's always best when he's unpredictable, the threat of sex and violence apparent. Playing two characters here, two sides of the same coin - one character having nightmares about a secret sex club with tarantulas and the other character actually living that dream - Gyllenhaal seems free of the burden that represented his most stunted sequence of movies.
Like 2008's Blindness adaptation, Enemy proves that the surreal nature of Saramago's prose is hard to translate cinematically. The screenplay (penned by Javier Gullon) spirals inward and onto itself, leaving the story with very little to go when it approaches the end. I'll give Gullon credit for not taking the several obvious routes (separated twins, multiple personalities) that a more conservative filmmaker would have settled for and I give Villeneuve credit for standing by it. For all the talk of Fincher, the images throughout Enemy are really closer to Kubrick, in that it realizes that confusion can produce the most frightening things in movies. Enemy calls itself an erotic thriller, and there is certainly enough sex for it to qualify, but it never really pays off in any way with the eroticism - it's the film's biggest fault: the sex is a little too sexy and not enough foreboding. But for all it's misdirection, the film's conclusion avoids a complete short circuit by staying totally true to the nature of its setting. This is probably the best Villeneuve film that I've seen so far, but Enemy makes me feel like he's got something even better coming down the line.