French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve premiered his first two English-language films in 2013. One was the blockbuster psychological thriller Prisoners. The lesser-known, Enemy, is a moody, enthralling nightmare of a movie that seems to be about a man battling with two sides of his personality. It could also be a movie about two men who happen to share a face. In either case, both are bad. One of them is a suave, motorcycle-obsessed actor with a beautiful wife and a fidelity problem — he’s part of a underground sex club where naked women kill tarantulas with their feet. The other is a moody history teacher and beta male who clearly sees himself as a good guy, but treats his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent) like a bag of meat nonetheless.
On the bright side, both are played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Enemy not only hates people (or men, at least), it also hates stories. Over and over, history teacher Gyllenhaal gives the same lecture about how Romans lulled people into submission by distracting them with entertainment — “the history of civilization is all about control,” he says. Later, he tells a co-worker “I don’t really like the movies.” There are moments meant to drive real-world moviegoers up the wall — like a spider the size of a skyscraper, strolling over a hazy Toronto, which is shown only once, and never referenced by a character. It’s pretty easy to see why it never got a wide release in the US.
On the surface, Enemy doesn’t seem to share much with Villeneuve’s recent big-budget critical darling, Arrival. Arrival is an optimistic movie that picks a brainy Amy Adams as an unassuming exemplar of what is good and possible for human beings. As The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino wrote recently, its most daring fantasy is that it imagines “we’ll be around to help anyone in 3,000 years.”
But both films are obsessed with the idea that linear narratives are a distraction. In Arrival, the key to saving humanity is learning a new, circular language that steps outside time; in Enemy, trying to line up the pieces of the Jake Gyllenhaals’ lives to create one whole story makes the whole thing collapse. Villeneuve also played with this theme in his 2013 breakout Prisoners, which stars Gyllenhaal as well. It’s a slightly more traditional movie, but it’s still focused around an inward-spiraling maze. As a director, Villeneuve is oddly antagonistic toward the basic obligation of presenting stories in the way human brains have been trained to process them.
for villeneuve, linear narratives are a distraction
It isn’t that non-sequential storylines are new or even rare in film, just that it’s surprising to see a filmmaker so doggedly obsessed with making his work this challenging to decipher. Pulp Fiction plays out in notorious disarray, but if you wrote each of its events down on cards, you could put them in order in a few minutes. Villeneuve’s films aren’t simple puzzles or satisfying stories, so what is he getting at?
He clearly likes horror and disorientation — at one point in Enemy, one Jake Gyllenhaal opens a bedroom door to discover that a 10-foot-tall tarantula has replaced the woman he was just making breakfast for. It’s of the same cloth as the only jump scare in Arrival, in which Amy Adams groggily hallucinates one of the movie’s massive octopus-like aliens emerging from the corner of her work room.
But Villeneuve seems to love writing best. In Arrival, the written word is pivotal to Adams’ attempts to communicate with the aliens. Villeneuve’s earlier films communicate a quiet reverence for writing, even when they show an abject cynicism for just about everything else. The slightly-less-revolting Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy does a lot of dumb things, but he also gives pretty good lectures about how ignoring history dooms people to repeat it, and he supplements those speeches with elaborate, web-like diagrams that his students avidly reproduce. It’s the only positive act the movie portrays, and also the place where Villeneuve tips his hand and indicates that society might not be 100 percent doomed. In Prisoners, a different Jake Gyllenhaal is nearly wordless and affectless, except when scribbling nonsensical notes in an old-school reporter’s pad — notes that reveal themselves to him and us as dizzyingly prescient down the line. His characters’ missives are the only things that cut through the haze of his weird, disobedient stories.
There’s been a lot of discussion of how painful it is to watch Arrival after the election — to see our best traits, the ones we’ve seemingly shrugged off as a country full of cowards — projected on the big screen. Villeneuve isn’t American, and he might not have intended this, but his message rings loud and clear nonetheless: for all purposes that matter, language is memory. It’s the only way we learn anything, or keep anything for another bewildered generation. God, I hope someone is writing this all down.