Encountering a double, or doppelganger, is an ancient fear with long literary credentials. There’s something primeval about it, the pagan myths are replete with twins, both evil and otherwise, and the Bible has some very famous twins of its own (Jacob and Esau being the primary example), but perhaps the one that connects most readily to the ancient fear of duplicity, two-faced and double-tongue-edness, is the redoubtable Thomas. The Apostle, whose name means Twin and whose surname, Didymus, means Double, was famous for his doubting that the risen Jesus was who he said he was and not just a lying two-timer.
Enemy, directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted from José Saramago’s novel The Double by Javier Gullón, deals with just this horror. Denis Villeneuve had an industrious year last year, releasing Prisoners and Enemy, both starring Jake Gyllenhaal, two the the darkest and most unsettling films of the year by far. Enemy, shot in sickly yellows and organ-failure browns, feels as if the whole movie is a fever dream induced by cirrhosis of the liver. By titling it Enemy instead of The Double he puts the audience on its toes, beginning with a brooding tension.
On the surface it is about someone who discovers a man that looks just like him (both played by Gyllenhaal). He stalks him, they meet, and then their lives are entwined further and more sinisterly. It is a taut and puzzling film and one that requires spoilers to be unwound, but the fun of it is lost if spoilt, so please read responsibly.
The film begins with Gyllenhaal’s character in some perverse underground sex-show. Lechers are enjoying the lewdness of a woman on a stage and then a silver tray is brought out. Beneath its dome is a fat spider. As the spider crawls off the platter a woman wearing heels holds her foot over its prodigious abdomen. The lechers hush, the drama seems unbearable, some attempt to avert their eyes, others gather their fingers in a mask, but watch with bated breath. A jumpcut takes us to the bedroom of a pregnant woman, her own tremendousness echoing the abdomen of the spider. Thus the film connects spiders and women, both dangerous and alluring, mothering and throttling. This connection is developed through spirally cracked windshields, crisscross weblike wires, visions of skyscraping arachnids lumbering past buildings and the proverbial tangled web woven by the men in order to keep their women in the dark.
The film then moves on to introduce Adam Bell, a history professor pronouncing upon totalitarianism to a class full docile students. He returns to his lonely apartment and has lonely sex with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). His days elide without import, each day looking like the last until a co-worker recommends a film. In the background, caught initially by his subconscious, is the man who looks like him. After some deft googling he finds that the actor’s name is Anthony Claire. Further stalking reveals that Anthony is married and expecting a child. Adam calls Anthony’s home and they agree to meet, but their similitude is so unnerving to Adam that he attempts to cut off all connection to Anthony. The Anthony coerces Adam into allowing a more perverse blending of their lives, which causes Adam to find his own weak method of revenge.
Villeneuve tantalizes his audience with all the pieces, but is so confoundingly elliptic that many have walked away with all manner of interpretations, my favorite oddball analysis being that it is a subtle retelling of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. The movie begins with a quote: “Chaos is order yet undeciphered” and the undeciphering can only come at the end when the terror of his mistreatment of the women is made real to Adam.
Adam, far from being the innocent party swept up in a twin-faced deceit, is the architect of the suffering and exploitation of two women. He is not a man so curiously similar to another man that they align in scars, freckles and birthdays, he is a guilt-stricken man of two minds.
Earlier Anthony’s wife (Sarah Gadon) accuses him of “seeing her again” and later Adam’s mother references his difficulties to fidelity as well. Adam’s mother also tells him that he has a good job and to stop chasing a career as a bit actor; a job, we find out, that Anthony hasn’t worked at in six months, the amount of time his wife has been pregnant. Their characters are conflated so deftly that the subconscious is the first to catch it and the higher mind left grasping for aliens.
Villeneuve describes the story as simple saying that it is about “a man leaving his mistress to go back to his wife.” But as Adam says to his class, “History repeats itself twice. The first time is a tragedy, the second time is a farce.” At the end Adam acquires the key to the next gathering of the den of lechery. He palms it, his eyes alight in wickedness, and we see that though he has gained/regained a wife, like a dog returning to vomit, he ingests the temptation again.
Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding in the bifurcation of Adam/Anthony. Coloring Adam with a temerity and giving Anthony a slight heft without resorting to overwrought markers signalling their characters. And Sarah Gadon is perfect as the forlorn wife, suspicious, confused and frightened by the changes in her husband. Denis Villeneuve has established himself as a director to pay attention to:Prisoners is a wicked little movie, an Ahab crying in the wilderness, and Enemy is a careful depiction (and condemnation) of the madness and destruction of immorality.
The Chimney Sweeper
A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.
Because I was happy upon the heath.
And smil’d among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death.
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy & dance & sing.
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.
-William Blake, from The Songs of Experience
In this short tale of abuse Blake gives us a terse bit of social and ecclesiastic criticism. The reader, drawn into the poem by the unattributed first three lines, is encountered by a “little black thing”, a child reduced to an object. The cry of “weep, weep” recounts the words of Jesus in Luke 23:28 (“Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children,”), an allusion further strengthened by the use of “woe”. His parents worship some warped Trinity, not God the Father, Son, and Spirit, but God, the Church, and the Government. But there’s defiance in this messianic child. The song they told him to sing was “sweep, sweep” to sell his services, but he cries out to the people to repent. Though he was stricken and afflicted yet he is happy and dances and sings. (Chimney Sweeper from the Songs of Innocence can be found here.)
Staying at Grandma’s
Sometimes they left me for the day
while they went — what does it matter
where — away. I sat and watched her work
the dough, then turn the white shape
yellow in a buttered bowl.
A coleus, wrong to my eye because its leaves
were red, was rooting on the sill
in a glass filled with water and azure
marbles. I loved to see the sun
pass through the blue.
“You know,” she’d say, turning
her straight and handsome back to me,
“that the body is the temple
of the Holy Ghost.”
The Holy Ghost, the oh, oh . . . the uh
oh, I thought, studying the toe of my new shoe,
and glad she wasn’t looking at me.
Soon I’d be back in school. No more mornings
at Grandma’s side while she swept the walk
or shook the dust mop by the neck.
If she loved me why did she say that
two women would be grinding at the mill,
that God would come out of the clouds
when they were least expecting him,
choose one to be with him in heaven
and leave the other there alone?
In a similar vein is Jane Kenyon’s poem about a girl abandoned for the summer at her overbearing grandmother’s. There’s menace in the lines describing the grandmother, it isn’t hard to see the frightened girl as the white dough turned yellow. The grandmother seems threatening, turning her “handsome” back on the girl, shaking the “neck” of the mop. It’s clear that the way the Holy Spirit has been presented to the girl that being his temple is a scary thing, “the oh, oh, the uh-oh”. The sense of exclusion culminates in the final stanza, when God himself arrives taking one woman, leaving the other behind.
These two poems taken together present real world religion warts and all, from over-zealous believers to hypocritical leeches, but both children are remarkably insightful in their understanding of the kingdom. The chimney sweeper is joyous despite being the suffering servant and the little girl knows better about love than the adults around her. These two poems taken together serve as a reminder that unless we become as little children we shall by no means enter the kingdom of God.