It makes sense that movies about envious doppelgangers should also arrive in pairs; one more impressive than the other. Later this year will see Richard Ayoade’s The Double, an impressively unnerving take on the Dostoyevsky novella about a man running into a double who looks just like him but is his spiritual opposite. Until then, we have Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, a spare adaptation of a Jose Saramago novel about a man seeing another who shares his appearance but not anything like his soul. Like the doppelgangers who circle each other warily throughout these stories, the films are mirror opposites; Villeneueve’s is the quieter one, though still highly confident that its slim story has something to it.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a somnolent professor at some Toronto university where he repeats lectures about dictatorships and philosophy to students who are barely aware of his presence. Although he theoretically has a girlfriend, Mary (Melanie Laurent), Adam can barely be bothered to acknowledge her presence in his bleak high-rise apartment stripped clean of almost every sign of human habitation. He’s a phantom in his own life, not even sure whether those inexplicable moments featuring spiders and dark chambers filled with mysterious people are memories or dreams. With long, anxious shots and very occasional jittery interactions with the people who flit across Adam’s anxious path, Villeneueve tracks him like somebody who is about to implode, if only he existed. Even his mother (Isabella Rossellini) doesn’t seem entirely sure that he does.
That emptiness is underscored when hollow-eyed Adam, desperate for something to take the edge off his insomniac existence, rents a fluffy movie and discovers himself in the background of one shot. A little bit of research confirms that the actor credited for a brief appearance as a bellman is a man named Anthony who looks for all the world just like Adam. At that point, it’s as though the supports have been knocked out from what there is of Adam’s life. He becomes fixated on coming face to face with this man who shares that face. When he finally does, Anthony turns out to be his opposite: aggressive and bullyingly manly, with a girlfriend who looks a lot like Adam’s.
Given the limitations of Gyllenhaal’s performance(s) and the ghostly thinness of the screenplay, it is never quite understandable why this minor discovery evokes such a cataclysmic response from Adam. With a more deeply rooted actor at the center of it, Enemy could have made for a nervy story about modern isolation and the fragility of the self. But that’s not the sort of thing that Gyllenhaal is equipped to deliver. In Villeneuve’s heftier Prisoners, Gyllenhaal was another marginal character, but one whose desperation was clearly and darkly lit in his eyes. He’s an actor who works best at those extremes; when he drops into lower registers (as Adam does), unless they’re played for comedy as in Donnie Darko, his performances threaten to disappear almost completely.
Unlike Gyllenhaal, Villeneuve is an artist who can deliver in just about any mode. Pulling back from grand and sprawling dramas like Prisoners and Incendies, Villeneuve etches stark anxiety into almost every scene of Enemy. With the skrilling score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, and Nicolas Bolduc’s smoulderingly sickly cinematography (it’s as though every scene is shot through a sticky and humid yellow cloud of urban smog), there’s not a moment here that doesn’t cause unrest. But there is so little to Saramago’s slender modernist fable on the surface that without some kind of narration or at least a more layered pair of performances — even with the occasional playful tricks where the film questions the reality of what you’re seeing — Enemy eventually spins itself into an overwrought irrelevance.