Did you, like many people, watch Denis Villeneueve’s 2013 arthouse trip-flick Enemy and, when the credits rolled find yourself wondering “What the heck did I just watch?” Well, this post will help sort through that confusing, symbol-laden ending. Maybe. Actually I also want to see if the title will help drive traffic to the post. But also, the ending is pretty tripped out and weird, so let’s talk about it!
Denis Villeneueve is a major, major talent. He broke onto the scene with some well-regarded Canadian arthouse flicks, announced himself in Hollywood with Prisoners, consolidated his rep as one of the premiere talents in the industry with Sicario and Arrival, and then perhaps bit off more than he (or any mortal) could chew with Blade Runner 2049. He is currently attempting the impossible task of adapting Dune for the screen, a mountain which has defeated many previous contenders.
He displays all the hallmarks of a true auteur: confident, controlled filmmaking that can move effortlessly between genres; symbolism-laden films that poke around at deeply complex themes such as the foibles of the human condition and the meaning of social order; a rich visual style that is often itself loaded with meaning.
After Prisoners, but before Sicario, Villeneueve dropped in this odd little movie: Enemy. Based on a Jose Scaramago novel, it dives into that classic theme of tortured Russian literature: the doppelganger. Dostoevsky and Nabokov both wrote twisty, fucked up psychological stories about what would happen if we met our exact double in the real world. The conclusion, apparently broadly shared by Russians, is that we would go absolutely fucking crazy. Funnily enough, in 2013 another indie film about doubles, called The Double and starring Jesse Eisenberg, also came out and also came to the same conclusion: meeting your exact double would make you go koo-koo banana brain. That two fairly niche films about doubles came out in the same year, thereby copying one another, is the kind of little Easter Egg that makes you wonder if God really does have a plan.
Anyway, back to Enemy which continues this rich tradition of having the main character meet his exact double and, you guessed it, go fucking insane as a result. The movie is a slow burn, very consciously steeped in the mise en scène of this claustrophobic, monotonous, choking atmosphere that is throughout bathed in an oppressive golden yellow glow. The film centers on a professor named Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) who discovers his exact double, a bit-actor named Anthony (also Jake Gyllenhaal). They start to explore each others lives, Anthony tries to sleep with Adam’s girl friend, and eventually Anthony’s wife turns into a giant spider. Some kind of sex club involving spiders is also involved.
Right, so what is going on in this film? Nobody really knows. That’s what makes it art! But this is my best guess. Adam and Anthony are the same person, but different aspects of his personality. Adam represents the main character’s fear of becoming stuck in a monotonous life: going to work, mechanical unattached sex, sleep, repeat. He finds the idea of this kind of life oppressive and trapping (hence the motif of the spider and the spiderwebs). Anthony represents the more freewheeling part of the personality, the one that aspires to be an actor, the one that rides a motorcycle, the one that brushes off his wife. These are dueling parts of the same person, but both share the same fear: being trapped. Being trapped in a job or a lifestyle or a routine or a marriage.
The Adam personality may or may not be having a real affair (that is somewhat unclear), but what is clear is eventually he comes home to his wife Helen (Sarah Gadon, in just a few minutes if screen time, is fucking electric in this role) and “kills” off the Anthony personality, symbolically or maybe in real life who the hell knows. But as soon as he makes that decision to “come home” to Helen, he instantly feels trapped again and that is why the film closes on an image of Helen transformed into a giant spider. Because he’s traded one web, the monotony of his humdrum academic life and unattached sex, for the web of being in a marriage, and he is the kind of person who fears, above all else, being trapped. Now, why would someone like Sarah Gadon ever settle for a chump like this? I think that is the film’s true mystery.
Anyway, the film is not showy about any of this. It doesn’t try to pull off any big shocking reveals. In fact, you don’t even realize it’s a reveal unless you’ve been watching very closely. Everything is very overwrought, very intense. My wife, as we were watching, kept saying things like “Why doesn’t he just call the Civil Registry and check and see if he has a brother?” That is an eminently sensible question. But it kind of misses the symbolism of the movie, which is very much interested in creating this claustrophobic aesthetic that kind of mimics the way Adam/Anthony feels trapped in his own life and his own mind. But the bottom line is, if you are looking for the explanation of the ending, it is that Anthony and Adam are the same person, fighting to stay free from a variety of webs woven by society, and that in the end Adam, the more stable one prevails, only to acknowledge a split second later that he can never truly be free of the webs spun by others. It’s thoughtful, meditative and demands critical thinking. That’s what makes it art.
Or, maybe it’s a movie about giant spiders invading Earth and inhabiting the bodies of human beings. Who knows. Art. It’s a rich tapestry.