Enemy: The Right Wrong Man

Hitchcock’s “you’ve got the wrong man” films were guided not by the ambitions of the people whose identities were mistaken for someone else's but by other people’s expectations of them. To make these movies, most notably North by Northwest and The Wrong Man, he always cast someone graciously likable, a star in the sense that they made people seem like a good idea. Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda became ideas to swoon for in part because of how a mistaken identity reinforces what is really thought of them. Denis Villeneuve makes Enemy like Hitchcock taken to a further degree, at which we all live our lives in a “you’ve got the wrong man” film, accused of being someone else for so long that we become that person.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the wrong man but in the sense that he mistakes himself for someone else and ends up being that person all along. Gyllenhaal remains dusky and likable no matter the roles he takes, which often contain complexes that make them seem like they would prefer to be treated as someone else (this sentiment is as clear in Donnie Darko as in Nightcrawler and Nocturnal Animals). The people he plays would all plead that the viewer has got the wrong man, but that’s just because they haven’t figured out who Jake Gyllenhaal is yet. They don't know that they are united by a sinister meta in which Gyllenhaal is a universal constant, which becomes the subject of Enemy and only the beginning of what makes it creepy. Enemy is about the conflict between an individual's idea of themselves and how they are seen, presented as a thriller in which a man hunts himself down and denies that it was ever him.

“It’s all about control,” says schoolteacher Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal), “Every dictatorship has one obsession and that’s it.” Destroying individual expression is the means to achieve that goal, which in the case of Enemy is a self-inflicted system of control. In the breakroom, a colleague asks Bell about the simplest preferences (favorite movie? color?) and discovers that he has none. He doesn’t really watch movies, and we get the impression it’s not because he doesn’t like them but because he can’t bring himself to choose one. When given suggestions, he watches them all like someone trying to acclimate himself to a new culture. He gets no enjoyment from trying to figure out what other people enjoy about them.

When he sees himself in one of the films as an actor named Anthony St. Claire (also Gyllenhaal), he begins obsessing over him, though he doesn’t seem to compare himself to him. Enemy depicts obsession as more than envy. For Adam (let's call him "Teacher Jake," it's a form of wondering why he "should" be envious to start with. Teacher Jake has an animalistic curiosity for Anthony (“Actor Jake”), like a dog that sees itself in the mirror. He can’t identify the reflection as himself, but he also can’t figure out how they’re different. The effect of the double actor, often repeated but rarely this convincingly, gives the film a mood that never lets up its feeling of unease, like a feature-length version of the seconds leading up to a jump-scare that never happens. Enemy even minimalizes its haunting score, pushing the power of its anxiety behind the eyes of an actor who has proved over and over again that he can take it. Gyllenhaal is a match made for the film's aggressive minimalism. He makes it easier to take discussions of Enemy beyond the literal.

The existence of Actor Jake doesn’t rob Teacher Jake of his individuality, as it should, but his lack of envy does. If Teacher Jake had enough sense of self to be jealous of his twin, he could break the poisonous hopelessness that controls his life, evident in the fact that human goals like sex and family and achievement are frightening unknowns to him. When he sees a version of himself that has these, he discovers how little they mean to him even and especially if he ever achieved them.

For many movie characters, the audience has to wonder if the version they are seeing on the screen represents everything they are and could be or just a selective sample of behavior that only applies to one two-hour situation. Enemy doesn't require the viewer to ask this question since its premise displays Jake in two forms, demonstrating that the differences are based purely on his psychological reactions to his experiences. The audience can see beyond the screenplay's single situation. No matter how Jake has had lived his life (the tenses are getting necessarily weird), the enigma of his own happiness makes gratification impossible for him.

So actor Jake wonders why he doesn't feel successful and Teacher Jake regards "his" achievements like someone who had never considered their value before. Teacher Jake is bad in bed and Actor Jake is unfaithful to his pregnant wife. It makes that wife (Sarah Gadon) suspicious of both Jakes for not being her idea of an "authentic Jake," which may not actually exist. Both are governed by the same curious apathy, which drives them to take charge of their identity but without acting on it. Enemy is about dictatorship and control as much as Invasion of the Body Snatchers was. But Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullón take it even further because there aren’t really “two” Jakes: there’s one portrayed in two aspects. This puts the alien regime, the body snatcher, on the inside. In a brisk but enclosing 90 minutes, Villeneuve has portrayed no less than the alienation of the self by the self, a new dictatorship, self-imposed.

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, aliens systematically replace humans with clones. But those clones don’t erect a new civilization: they end up being paper-pushers staring at their shoes and gabbing about election cycles. They don't "enjoy" being human more than a human does -- apathy is the biggest thing they snatch. Why do the aliens do it if they take no pleasure from it? The greatest fear in that film (which is allegedly about the intellectual threat of Communism) is not that humanity will be captured and turned into mindless aliens, but that if it was, it might not be able to tell the difference. Enemy propels this fear into the Information Age with an ominous truth: now, such invasions happen every day. They are self-governed.

Enemy’s pivotal moment is when the two Jakes switch places, like “The Prince and the Pauper” in a world where every room is one level of brightness away from being a sex dungeon and which some people allegedly call "Toronto." Actor Jake has sex with Teacher Jake’s girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent), who can’t tell them apart without evidence. Earlier, Teacher Jake himself woke her up and tried to have sex without her consent, something he couldn't understand. Now he’s in Actor Jake’s house, with a pregnant wife, barely even resentful that Actor Jake stole his life, as though he didn’t really identify with it anyway. It’s worse than if the switch was between two paupers because it’s like it doesn’t matter which is which to begin with since they are made from the same stuff What "The Prince and the Pauper" never asked is if it would make a difference if the two men were identical except for their experiences. By doing so, Enemy shows Jake looking at Helen. He fears and mythologizes her, sensing her suspicion and mirroring it. No matter the level of his success, he loses himself when he remembers he's with her. She has the power to turn him into an imposter.

This brings us to the spiders.

The sight of spiders throughout Enemy triggers emotional development but only in the audience. They yield the secrets of Jake’s inner turmoil but not to himself. He’s suspicious of women, like they all belong to some unknowable cult, and having sex with them makes him culpable in his own suffering. As women become more fertile in Enemy, which should make the Jakes care for them more, they become more unapproachable and unknown to him/them. His wife is pregnant and her sensuality makes him distant and suspicious of her, as though she was the one cheating (the movie tells us this by having the Jakes switch places: now it really is someone else’s baby, despite still being "his"). Having sex with her seems like something he has to do, despite taking no pleasure from it. A series of Kafka-esque nightmares (these are dreams in the movie’s reality but no less significant than any of the real action) define his psychology more clearly, though the film never names a point to them.

A woman walks slowly towards him with a spider’s face and passes without acknowledging him. A prostitute lifts a serving tray to reveal a tarantula and hovers her foot over it while leery men watch with starving eyes (this may really happen, though the film is coy about the continuity). In another image, a spider walks over a city with tentative omnipotence; it seems to be made of scaffolding and cloudy fabric and dust. There are more, some that made my hindbrain tingle. This movie has some scares that are primally unnerving, even for viewers that are okay with spiders on a good day.

Spiders seem to be in power in Jakes’ life. This leads some reviewers to believe they’re real invaders, which would make Enemy viable, though doubtful science fiction. But the fantasy of these images gives them their real power: they are the thoughts that force Jake into a pattern of identity-lessness. They lead him to control so much of his life that he can’t trust any of it. He feels trapped by his suspicions, his obsession with underachieving, his inability to understand and love women (one of which has rage-sex in a broken relationship and the other who distantly hates carrying the child of a bad husband). These anxieties take the form of spiders. Even the casting provides a clue: Isabella Rossellini enters as Jake’s overbearing mother and brings some of Blue Velvet’s sexual deviancy with her.

The forces that control Jakes’ life do so from within his psychology. And when he makes certain discoveries, notice (you will know the moment) that his personal monster doesn’t attack him but cowers from him. This is a common feeling among people armed with a tissue and a shoe who approach a bathroom with a spider laced across the upper corner of the room: the power to bully something that you can’t really conquer. That’s Jake with the women in his life. He looks at it unsurprised, like he understands the obsessions he can’t do anything about. The film begins with him watching lesbian sex in a club filled with sweating men and spiders and this may occur again after the film is over, after he confronts himself by becoming Actor Jake and surrendering to his pattern of fearful self-control. Enemy cannot be a film about change: it is about the changelessness that makes us perfect agents of our own misery. And perfect subjects for preservation by movies.

Perhaps Enemy, like Mulholland Drive, has less to say about its players than about films themselves. An actor has to negotiate a crisis similar to Jake’s every time he puts his personality aside to play into someone else’s anxieties and expectations, while knowing that the only way to make them authentic is to make them his own. In that sense, you always have the wrong man in every film you watch. But the crisis of identity doesn't come from the events that lead the man to be mistaken and punished, but from the fact that the effect doesn’t work until the man believes he is the right one. Gyllenhaal may be the first person to play both at once. Villeneuve inherits Hitchcock’s dusky crown with Enemy, a film that can become clearer only as it becomes less about a double performance in a pseudo-noir and more about cinema. It sets out to be a mystery about a man’s double life as two versions of his idea of himself, colored by his sexual suspicions and amped up by his fears of the known. It may end as nothing less than the fantasy of moviemaking itself.

***

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, March 4, 2019

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Pathé/Entertainment One

Cast & Crew

Denis Villeneuve

Javier Gullón (screenplay)

José Saramago (book)

 

Adam Bell/Anthony ClaireJake Gyllenhaal
MaryMélanie Laurent
Helen ClaireSarah Gadon
MotherIsabella Rossellini

124 minutes

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