Jake Gyllenhaal acts opposite himself in "Enemy," just like Jeremy Irons in "Dead Ringers" — or Adam Sandler in "Jack & Jill." Credit: A24
'Enemy' Director: Denis Villeneuve Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
The novels of the late Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago sound like no-brainers for film adaptations. Some even boast high concept plots. “Blindness” features an inexplicable pandemic that robs select people of their sight. “The Double” — itself a doppelganger of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, whose own adaptation, with two Jesse Eisenbergs, is forthcoming — features a man who finds someone who looks just like him. But Saramago is more about philosophy than plotting. And film can’t help but literalize what his experimental prose steadfastly keeps figurative. What seems striking on the page and in the imagination can seem silly when you have to look at it.
If you take “Enemy,” based on the latter, at its word, you might quickly grow annoyed. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Adam, an unhappy professor whose life is a dirge of work and joylessly aggressive sex with his remote wife (Melanie Laurent). One night, he watches a movie and notices an extra who looks exactly like him. He fumblingly attempts correspondence, discovering that this man a) is so physically like him that he even has the same scar, b) has a very pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) and c) is kind of an a—hole.
But “Enemy” lacks precision. It stumbles through the details, half-teasing that the two Jakes might be switching lives (or not?) This is not the work of a master plotter, rather a novelist working freely through vague notions of existential dread and fears of maturity and commitment.
That’s where the director comes in. In “Blindness,” Fernando Meirelles asserted himself by shooting in disorienting frames that obscured most of the action — anything to obscure an increasingly nonsensical plot (as Saramago had done in print). “Enemy”’s Denis Villeneuve keeps things simple: He simply piles on the dread. Toronto’s sky is painted urine yellow. The sound design and score work overtime to wrangle tension out of every immaculately composed, dimly lit cinemascope frame. It wants you to feel the vague but itching anguish that is weighing down Adam’s every step.
But Villeneuve goes too far; this often plays like parody of overly intense filmmaking. Then he goes further. What seemed like simple overdirection suddenly goes bonkers with a single, nightmarish-yet-hilarious image — one we wouldn’t want to spoil. Does it earn this moment? Not really. But its willingness to go there earns it P.T. Barnum status. Suddenly a film that seemed sloppy and overdetermined uses both qualities to head into relatively unique mindf— territory, all the more mindf—y because so little of it holds together.
It helps that Gyllenhaal is at the helm. A sometimes too hangdog presence, he makes both characters strident and prickly, grounding a script that can be too meandering and direction that tries too hard to get under our skin. This is the second time the actor has worked with Villeneuve: "Prisoners," which also premiered at last year's Toronto Film Festival, is this one's own double. But where that film got worse as it got sillier, "Enemy" gets better when Villeneuve starts having fun.