The film industry lives to surprise us, but if I were to compile a list right now of Directors Least Likely To Direct A Romantic Comedy In The Near Or Distant Future, I'd feel comfortable placing Québécois atmosphere merchant Denis Villeneuve in the top five. For better or worse, Villeneuve's cinema thrives on a kind of precision-cut, cultivatedly fetid dourness. At its worst, it produces damp, philosophically aspirational melodrama like the abhorrent, Oscar-nominated “Incendies”; last year's gorgeous, luxuriantly trashy thriller “Prisoners” suggested he's better suited to material that knows its own daftness, even if Villeneuve himself doesn't.
Or perhaps not. Shot back-to-back with “Prisoners,” the equally sombre but very differently scaled “Enemy” practically begs for charges of pretension from its opening onscreen epigraph: “Chaos is order yet undeciphered.” It's a red flag signalling that we may be back in lugubrious “Incendies” territory — certainly, José Saramago's thoughtful source novel “The Double”.is a long way from even the high-end pulp of “Prisoners.”
Yet the stodgy self-importance pretty much ends there in this brisk, teasing puzzle picture, an examination of dual identity that presents its most outlandish ideas essentially without comment, for the audience to take or leave as they will. It'd be a stretch to say Villeneuve has found his sense of humor — his tone and aesthetic are as forbidding as ever — but there's a cautious playfulness at work here, an admission of answers he may be missing.
Not that anyone else has them either — least of all either of the two characters played by Jake Gyllenhaal in what begins as a classical, Kafkaesque doppelgänger story. (I say “two characters” for the sake of convenience: whether they are in fact two separate beings, or two sides of the same human coin, is one of many question marks here.) The one favored by the narrative — which is not to suggest his perspective is any more concrete or reliable — is Adam Bell, a tweed-jacketed, slack-spirited college history professor who seemingly takes no more interest in his bright girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent) than he does in his indifferently delivered lectures. The film is set in a Toronto that mirrors Adam's psychological fug, shot by cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc through a yellow filter that isn't so much golden as uretic; the city and its inhabitants seem on the brink of disease throughout.
Following a recommendation from a colleague (is he in on it, whatever “it” is?), Adam checks out an obscure comedy film with little to distinguish it beyond an immediately striking face amidst the bit players — a face that uncannily resembles his own. Cursory online research turns up the profile of Toronto-based smalltime actor Anthony Claire (Gyllenhaal again); less cursory stalking and eventual confrontation prove the men are indeed identical in every respect, down to an unusual chest scar. Their personalities, however, are less neatly aligned: cocksure and sexually aggressive where Adam is shy and self-isolating, the wealthy, motorbike-riding Anthony is opposite enough to suggest we may be observing a symbolic separation of ego and id. Javier Gullon's terse, opaque screenplay, however, poses narrative barriers to the elegant solution of interpreting one man as a figment of the other's imagination or psyche.
Initially taken aback, Anthony warms to the idea of his double, particularly when it occurs to him that he can trick Mary into sex by posing as her boyfriend. Back at home, his heavily pregnant wife Helen (the eerily beautiful Sarah Gadon, Cronenberg's new muse) hints that she may know what's going on, but seems unperturbed when Adam shows up in her husband's place. Gadon, Toronto, “Dead Ringers”-style body exchange — we're in a richly Cronenbergian groove here, though Villeneuve has a drier, less tactile appreciation of human perversions. It's the geometry of the situation that interests him, not its icky internal implications; controlled Hitchcock allusions abound too, not least in the secondary doubling of Gadon and Laurent's cool blondes.
Gradually, the film's own id seems to escape the command of its ego. The contorted nightmare imagery of apparent fantasy sequences — many involving a glossy, onyx-surfaced sex club where unclothed glamazons do unseemly things with tarantulas — escapes into the supposed real world to an extent that suggests they were never dreams at all. Spiders are to “Enemy” what snakes were to “Prisoners,” and then some: halfway through the film, a giant, Louise Bourgeois-style arachnid seen looming menacingly over the Toronto skyline seems a manifestation of all the human malice and mistrust the film has accumulated to this point.
So clinically slippery is Villeneuve's story world, however, that it could as easily be real: a craftsman to the nth degree, he has the knack of making ordinary space and sound seem very strange indeed, abetted by a lush, loopy score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans that is just the right amount of too much. The film as a whole is something of a contained indulgence: after the bloat of both “Incendies” and “Prisoners,” it's gratifying to see Villeneuve return to the structural austerity of 2009's “Polytechnique,” albeit embellished with much of the formal trickery he's picked up since then.
To discuss more of the film's ploys and mechanics — including a shocker of a closing shot that could fairly be judged either an idle gag or a terrifying dive into deeper dream logic — would be to enter the realm of spoilers, even if it's not clear what conclusions exactly would be spoiled. It's Gyllenhaal's nervy, committed-to-the-cause performance — better than his solid but over-mannered work in “Prisoners” — that lends these strange, floaty proceedings a grave human conscience. He's an equally convincing patsy in what is either an elaborately fanned-out study of a mental breakdown, or the freakiest cautionary allegory for the perils of infidelity since “Fatal Attraction” — which, come to think of it, is a film out of which Denis Villeneuve would remake the living, inverted hell.