PRINT May 2014


Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy and Richard Ayoade’s The Double

Denis Villeneuve, Enemy, 2013, digital video, color, sound, 90 minutes. Adam and Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal).

WHETHER THEY PICKED UP on something in the air or were bitten by the same bug, the creators of three recent films have shown symptoms of “double” fever. Fictional doubles are hardly new in films or literature—one need only think of Shakespeare’s comedies or Poe’s “William Wilson”—but when they break out in clusters, it’s tempting to wonder whether some unconscious cultural anxiety isn’t bubbling up. Perhaps it’s the fear many share that in the digital age, in this culture of the copy, authenticity itself has been lost; or that under the benign mask of communal spirit, so-called social media actually threaten individual identity. But no serious concern over our contemporary predicament lurks behind Arie Posin’s The Face of Love, a potboiler about a widow (Annette Bening) tempting fate, not to mention a nervous breakdown, when she pursues a man (Ed Harris) who is the spitting image of her dead husband (ditto). The movie is inane fluff, compounded by sophomoric allusions to Vertigo and untouched by the genuine anxieties of double fever.

Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy and Richard Ayoade’s The Double are a very different story. Based on works of literature besotted with existential and ontological concerns—José Saramago’s The Double (2002), in the first case, Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same title, in the second—the films showcase tour-de-force performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Jesse Eisenberg, respectively, and also earn points for their refreshingly offbeat visual designs. If neither film fully realizes its ambitions, each reflects genuine angst over the fate of the individual in the alarming rush toward global homogeneity. Wasn’t it mere decades ago that one of the culture’s catchwords was difference?

The double theme lends a particular urgency to the question all fiction makers confront and that Saramago asks in his novel: “What comes next?” If the characters are forced to ponder what to do upon discovering the existence of an identical other—of the same age and with the same body, face, voice, hair, scars, and even penis size—the author himself faces no less a challenge in finding a new way to narrate, let alone resolve, such a story. Though Saramago’s novel is crammed with such obligatory paraphernalia of modernist fiction as authorial interventions, shifts in tense and voice, and digressive metaphysical musings, the tale it tells is pretty straightforward: A history teacher, depressed, divorced, and wary of remarrying, spots his double, a struggling actor of bit parts, in a video loaned by a colleague. After a protracted, but ultimately successful, quest to identify the actor by watching every film made by the same production company, the teacher resolves to meet the man himself. But while the encounter seems to quench his curiosity, it rouses vengeful feelings in his nastier duplicate, leading to disastrous consequences.

Opting for plot mechanics over grand literary ruminations, Villeneuve’s tautly constructed Enemy truncates his protagonist’s search, eliminates the novel’s hints of a split personality, and converts Adam’s obsessiveness into reasonable curiosity. The film also opens and closes with images that reduce the story’s ontological ramifications to the familiar device of the “exchange,” whereby one half of the pair embraces the dark side embodied by the other. In the novel, this comes as a last-minute shock, but the Quebecois director (perhaps best known for 2010’s Incendies) tips his hand too soon with a contrived allusion to the covert world of perverse sexuality à la Eyes Wide Shut. Despite this, Enemy’s ambience, look, rhythm, and central performance(s) are compelling. The vast, deserted, and impersonal spaces of Toronto, where most of the movie was shot, are unsettling objective correlatives, connoting the void in the teacher’s life, and the film’s brisk, spare approach to dialogue and action suits its uncanny air.

Air—the kind we breathe—is all but stifled in Ayoade’s The Double. The dimly lit, sallow mise-en-scène and pinched spatial perspectives might feel more at home on a smartphone than on the big screen. But the film’s claustrophobic feel—conjuring a low-budget, Eastern European movie from the 1960s as directed by David Lynch—is wholly compatible with its literary source, in which credible social reality is increasingly muddled by the protagonist’s delusions. Though the story has been read as a clinically exacting descent into madness, Dostoyevsky employed the idea of the double as a radical means of deepening the portrayal of a fictional character through a nuanced depiction of self-consciousness. Golyadkin, his protagonist, was thus the precursor to important characters in the author’s major novels. Dostoyevsky provides clues that his protagonist has a split personality, but he ultimately leaves the boundary between the real and the imaginary undetermined.

While it alters much in its source, Ayoade’s film (the Brit’s second) walks a similar line. Suffering from an acute insecurity complex, Simon, a chronically unnoticeable office clerk who processes unspecified data about people, seems at first hopeful when his aggressive double, James, shows up and helps him take charge of his life and win the love of Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a female coworker. Soon, though, James supplants him everywhere and wreaks havoc. Eisenberg—Mr. Facebook himself—attacks with relish both the passive and the aggressive role, playing up his own eccentric demeanor to darkly comic effect. In the end, a “reborn” Simon, rising from an open grave into which he was knocked, so successfully assumes the determined stride and angry voice of his rival that within moments he is greeted by a fellow worker as James, while, after a failed suicide attempt, he is addressed by an ambulance attendant as Simon. As the smirk on his face hints when he responds, this “new” Simon seems to have internalized his other. And so, the film’s final line, “I like to think I’m pretty unique”—particularly as delivered by the sardonic Eisenberg—resonates with the ambiguity and wit of Dostoyevsky’s text.

Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy opened in the US this spring; Richard Ayoade’s The Double opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 9.

Tony Pipolo is a frequent contributor to Artforum.