The Two Doubles: “Enemy” vs. “The Double”
2014 has been, so far, one of the best years for art film in recent memory. Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is the current critical darling of indie cinema, but beyond that film (which I have yet to see unfortunately) we are seeing some really fascinating movies from avant garde directors both new and legendary, including “Under the Skin” dir. Jonathan Glazer, “The Zero Theorem” dir. Terry Gilliam, “Only Lovers Left Alive” dir. Jim Jarmusch, “Noah” dir. Darren Aronofsky, “Snowpiercer” dir. Bong Joon-Ho, “Child of God” dir. James Franco, “Grand Budapest Hotel” dir. Wes Anderson, “Lost River” dir. Ryan Gosling. Still upcoming are “Birdman” dir. Alexander Gonzalez Innaritu, which will apparently be made to seem as if the movie is all one long tracking shot, and what looks to be Cronenberg’s answer to the other master surrealist director named David’s “Mulholland Drive”, “Maps to the Stars” also awaits us.
But today we’re going to look at easily the most interesting part of 2014 in film so far, "The Double", directed by Richard Ayoade, based on the philosophical fiction classic by Fydor Dostoyevsky, and "Enemy", directed by Denis Villeneuve, based on the philosophical fiction classic “The Double”, by Jose Saramago. Both films are startlingly similar, and if you can’t guess the primary reason why is that the plot is centered around the presence of a doppelganger whose personality is the direct opposite of our protagonist.
It’s worth noting that Saramago’s “The Double”, while less well known than Dostoyevsky’s novella, is an important work in his career which earned him a Nobel Prize, while Dostoyevsky himself considered “The Double” to be one of his weakest efforts. And when comparing the novella to his other work, particularly “The Idiot”, “Crime & Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov”, Dostoyevsky is certainly right. So perhaps this lends “Enemy” an unfair advantage.
"Enemy" is clearly a better film, let’s just get that out of the way. I would argue that "Enemy" is the best film of 2014, and the only film I really see with a chance to displace it is "Maps to the Stars".
Still though, “The Double” is easily one of the best movies this year as well. Both are of a slew of films that have recently come out and owed huge debt to the influence of David Lynch. But it’s better than “Under the Skin”, also a good film but a bit underwhelming thematically, and Ryan Gosling’s despised “Lost River”, which was said to be a bit too Lynchian and unoriginal, but I also should note that I haven’t seen the film yet and would like to. I’d rather see a mess of a movie that shot for the heights of “Blue Velvet” than a film that shoots for being the next “Twilight”.
The most obvious place to start a comparison of the films, and their equally Lynch indebted nature is the sound design, which is phenomenal for both films, and manages to not be a dull rip off of Lynch’s signature drone. Both films incorporate a more traditionally orchestrated score, but also utilize it to two very different, yet exceptionally well done, affects.
Villaneuve does do too much beyond finding some kickass, anxiety inducing ambient sound effects, and let’s his knock out of a score, composed by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, do the rest of the work. Perhaps the best example of this is in the dream sequence in which Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) realizes that he has a double, a small time actor who plays a bit part in a movie he watched, named Anthony Claire. The scene is virtuoso not only in it’s surreal entrance into the film, but the spectacular cinematography and editing, accompanied by a bombastically terrifying score.
Ayoade’s score is a bit more restrained and he relies on more traditionally Lynchian ambient drone, though “Enemy” has plenty as well. Unfortunately, less is more in this case, and Ayoade goes a bit overboard at times in the sounds he throws the audience’s way. The score is very British, as is the black sensibility of the entire film, but some times the soundtrack is cluttered with too much ambient sound. And other times the sound effects are clearly non-diegetic, such as a ticking clock that we hear as Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) waits for a co-worker to notice that James Simon (also Jesse Eisenberg, obviously) is his exact doppelganger. The movie had built enough tension, and the sound effect here broke it, and was exceptionally unnecessary. Other more minor instances of this occur throughout.
However, Ayoade also has some strokes of directorial genius to compensate. The dialogue patterns throughout the film are remarkably timed, characters cut each other off constantly, or respond abnormally. The dialogue itself by Ayoade and writing partner Avi Korine is sizzlingly bizarre, and the quickness of the pace is a nice contrast to “Enemy” which is a largely non-verbal film, relying on many Refn-esque passages of staring. When there is dialogue it is well executed, and unlike “The Double”, the characters act and speak much more realistically.
Herein lies another interesting comparison. Both films are clearly surreal, the presence of a doppelganger makes this inherent. But the mise en scene, cinematography and cinematic atmosphere achieve their surreal affect in extraordinarily different ways.
"Enemy" finds horror and anxiety in the mundane and uses real locations. The coloring of the film, essentially mono or duo-chromatic, is consistently jarring and exaggerated, in a very good way. Toronto, the location of the film, is made to seem an overbearingly modern presence, with recurrent helicopter shots throughout the film, often focusing on the slightly abnormal architecture. The lighting of this film is brilliant, and in general it looks better than any film this year other than "Snowpiercer".
Additionally the characterization is more close to life, and the film focuses much more than “The Double” does on the anxiety and panic that come with the discovery of a doppelganger. Gyllenhaal’s performance in this regard is perhaps the best of his career, as he nails the cocky motorcycle riding actor, Anthony, as well as the quiet, terrified college professor, Adam.
"The Double" on the other hand plays a bit more like Terry Gilliam. The film takes place in a world that is clearly unreal, with outdated and incomprehensibly retro technology throughout it. It’s a very interesting look, and most interestingly it’s clearly not science fiction, but more a drab physical manifestation of the gentrification of culture and individuality, through bureaucracy and isolation. This is thematically in step with the book, and a very interesting way to adapt it, as opposed to making the film a period piece.
"The Double" takes a large risk, by changing the ending, which pays off. Instead of the original ending which involved the protagonist going mad and seeing hundreds of doppelgangers, which is a bit too on the nose to be interesting in a feature length film, there is instead a fascinating motif of suicide that comes into play in the final moment, though I won’t ruin who, what or how anything happens.
Both films are well made, clearly, and the acting is pretty impressive from both casts. I suppose I have some preference for the aesthetic of “Enemy”, which should be obvious because I favor that film thematically. But it’s worth noting that “The Doubles” aesthetic does an objectively equal job of communicating what it wants to.
But in the end “The Double” is still too well known by now, and it’s themes are already part of the zeitgeist. Ayoade does a nice update of everything, adding in some commentary on identity in the age of the internet, such as Eisenberg Number One being told that he is no longer a person since he isn’t in the system. But while everything is interesting to discuss, the existentialist elements are the draw, and by now existentialism and absurdism have been so widely dissected and disseminated that there isn’t much enigmatic about the ideas anymore.
Essentially, anyone going into “The Double” having read or even been familiar with the novella, will already know the philosophical content being teased at, the suffocating presence of a techno-beaurocratic environment and the warped face of humanity that results. On the other hand, anyone who has read Saramago’s “The Double” will find “Enemy” covers a completely different philosophical subject matter.
While the Saramago book is clearly about totalitarian governments, Villaneuve has taken his adaptation in a very different direction, while still utilizing talk of totalitarianism as a thematic support for his central visual motif: Spiders, and spider webs. It’s worth distinguishing the two as after some viewing it becomes clear that at some level the entire film’s focus is male sexuality and the male understanding of femininity.
My personal interpretation is that to really define the symbols of Spiders and their webs defeats the purpose of watching a movie. Cinematic symbols are abstract in that they are experienced, and can communicated ideas beyond anything we can put into words. However, for lack of a better form of communication besides the film itself, let’s give it a try anyway.
In simplest terms, the spiders are women. We see a large spider standing above the city juxtaposed against Gyllenhaal paying his mother (Isabella Rossellini) a visit, a clear symbol of maternal super ego. In the first scene, set in an underground sex club, we see a stripper step on a tarantula with the heel of her stiletto boot. There is one more much clearer instance where the connection with women themselves is implied, but I won’t dare ruin it.
The webs, conversely are sex. We see web like trolley cables, as Gyllenhaal lectures us on totalitarianism, and most notably we see a cracked window that looks like a web.
The duality of these symbols works alongside the duality of the Gyllenhaals. Adam, a successful professor, dresses in drab suits and spends his nights drinking, angrily having sex with his girlfriend (Melanie Laurent), or sometimes even raping her, when he isn’t grading papers. Anthony, on the other hand, wears leather jackets, exercises and is married to a loving wife (Sarah Gadon) who is pregnant with their first child. Anthony is assertive, gregarious and manipulative, and clearly has a history of infidelity. Adam is the opposite, and it’s an interesting polarity between the roles.
A certain way to see the film could be that Adam and Anthony are the same person, and these personalities and lifestyles are subject to interpretation. This is supported not only by Adam’s mother telling him to quit his acting aspirations, and his later interactions with Sarah Gadon.
It would make more sense that Anthony would be the one to date Melanie Laurent and live in a small sparse apartment, as a struggling actor and lothario, while the more adult seeming Adam would be the one with the wife and fancy condo. However it’s not necessarily a temporal separation of partners, nor is Adam clearly cheating with Melanie Laurent. One could claim that both actresses, Gadon and Laurent, with their blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes, are the same character, or at least representing the same idea of a woman, as in Bunuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire”.
Any way we see it, it doesn’t change that this duality is important to understanding the spider/web motif.
It becomes clear in the film that a key that Anthony was supposed to receive is to the sex club we see him at in the beginning of the film. Later Adam knowingly sees the key and tells Sarah Gadon he’s going out, and suddenly we see her transformed into a spider. Not only does his understanding of the key’s meaning imply his oneness with Anthony, but this clearly indicates that the wife IS the spider.
End of Spoilers.
What is Villaneuve saying? I’m still not quite sure, but he clearly implies an impotence in the meeker Gyllenhaal that is coupled with sex and libido, and a vitality in domestication is imbued into the family man actor Gyllenhaal. The film seems to be an examination of not only male sexuality but the traps of our desire. Women spin a web of sex, in order to prey upon us, but their being seen as preying spiders is clearly not a good portrayal. I don’t think that women are being called spiders by Villaneuve as much as the spider being a manifestation of male fear of commitment or something along those lines.
And here the totalitarian motif comes into play. Gyllenhaal tells us that totalitarianism, lack of freedom is something we allow throughout history. Is this telling us that the problem is men seeing women as something to fear? Is it calling the male libido a recurring cause of self destruction? I suppose it depends on whether one sees Gyllenhaal’s facial expression in the last shot as one of submission and acceptance or of irritation and disinterest.
Anyway, that seems to cover everything in terms of a narrative understanding of the two film’s textual and cinematic content. Both movies are truly some of the best to come out in a while, from very interestingly avant garde directors. I have yet to mention that their technique is remarkably inventive.
Villaneuve uses some very Soviet Montage inspired sequences to portray his character’s mental states. The film does not typically obey continuity unless it absolutely needs to.
For instance, take a look at the sequence in which Gyllenhaal’s Adam contemplates the presence of his doppelganger. Nothing is too jarringly anti-continuity, but there isn’t the same level of spacial attention that most films give their progression of shots. Villaneuve throws quick location changes, and long takes with seemingly no subject before Gyllenhaal enters, expecting us to interpret this pacing as Gyllenhaal’s mental state. The gambit works flawlessly, and this poetic composition of shots is what gives “Enemy” it’s powerful affect.
Ayoade is a bit more spatially consistent but he uses some very inventive camera angles and editing techniques, but most importantly camera movement. There’s a clear fondness for Kubrickian tracking shots, as in the elongated sequence, where the camera follows the two Eisenbergs, walking down a dim, grungy hallway, without acknowledging the other. In general “The Double” also utilizes a more selective use of angles and close ups, giving us a more subjective look into Eisenberg’s mind.
Also particularly of note is the way Ayoade recreates a suicide scenario early in the film. We see Eisenberg being questioned by two detectives, after he witnesses a man jump to his death. The cops then illustrate how the man could have survived and Ayoade gives us a first person look at the motions they describe, give to us in short, explosive cuts that barely register until after the sequence has finished.
So while “Enemy” is thematically more ambiguous, only this separates it from “The Double”. Both films are equally well made and it’s a truly exciting opportunity for serious film goers to see two films in the same year tackle such a subject and both do it well and with a healthy amount of idiosyncrasy.
So it’s important to note that both films are a rare feat, managing to be not only highly original but well made in almost every aspect, so much so that while we watch them we forget the iconic subject matter they are based upon. Both achieve arguably cinema’s most important goal, to enrapture the audience and force the spectator to lose themselves in the director’s dream.
Enemy: 5 Stars
The Double: 4 1/2 Stars