The Surreal World: how Denis Villeneuve transformed Toronto into a spooky nightmare
In his new film, Enemy, the director shows us our city as we’ve never seen it before
In Denis Villeneuve’s mind-bending new thriller, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a weary professor at the so-called University of Greater Toronto. One day, while watching a movie at home, the sad-sack academic spots a face onscreen that looks exactly like his own. After some quick googling, he tracks down his doppelgänger, an actor named Anthony Saint Claire who lives in a glassy Mississauga condo tower. The two men slowly become obsessed with each other, assailed by the feeling they’re living the wrong lives. It’s Villeneuve’s weirdest, most exciting movie to date.
Denis Villeneuve is Canada’s latest celebrity auteur, the kind of director who can attract A-list stars and awards-season buzz. He blasted into the spotlight in 2011, when his operatic family drama Incendies was nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars. It lost out to Denmark’s A Better World, but Villeneuve had already won: the critical attention introduced the director to the U.S. market, positioning him as a serious filmmaker who could deliver a crowd-pleasing blend of triumph and tragedy. Effortlessly charming and funny, Villeneuve gamely attended to the barrage of press and critical hurrahs as if waiting for the curtain to lift on the next act of his career.
Executives at Warner Brothers were so impressed that they tapped him to direct last year’s Prisoners, a $46-million nail-biter starring Hugh Jackman as a hard-nosed survivalist driven to desperate acts of violence as he searches for his missing daughter. It was as much a showpiece for Jackman—and, again, for Gyllenhaal, this time playing a compulsively blinking detective—as it was a broad canvas for the themes Villeneuve broached in Incendies: violence and retribution, sin and redemption, all that trumped-up biblical stuff. Still, Prisoners and Incendies felt like calling cards—a gifted director showing what he could do instead of what he wanted to do.
Not so with Enemy, which is something of a pet project for Villeneuve, and all the better for it: he channels the steely, nihilistic psychological thrillers of the 1990s, recalling David Lynch in some moments, David Fincher in others. Beyond its debts to other directors, Enemy is a spectacle in its own right, a film that runs amok around Toronto and challenges its viewers’ expectations at every turn.
The opening scene bleeds in like a bad dream, drifting across a hazy, jaundiced Toronto skyline. It cuts to a rumpled Gyllenhaal entering a dimly lit industrial basement, where a group of bored-looking men in suits watch a grisly sex show, the moaning and shrieking tracing a fine contour between pain and ecstasy. Onstage, a half-dressed woman lifts the lid off a gilded serving platter, revealing a live tarantula. Gyllenhaal watches through tented fingers as her stiletto slams down, impaling the bug. It’s like something out of a Buñuel film: a surreal collision of sex, violence, bourgeois satire and patent silliness.
The rest of the movie unfolds in a similarly groggy trance. Gyllenhaal plays Adam as a living owl pellet of tweed, perspiration and wiry beard hair. As Anthony, he’s slick and self-deluded, a wannabe actor tightly packed into a leather motorcycle jacket, who chides his pregnant fiancée for buying “conventional,” as opposed to organic, berries. Once the doubles cross paths, they start to take over each other’s lives: Anthony hatches a scheme to ditch his fiancée and sleep with Adam’s chilly girlfriend, while Adam shuffles uncomfortably around his doppelgänger’s condo and attends those perverse sex shows.
Where Incendies and Prisoners resolved themselves with endings so tidy they might as well have come gift-wrapped, Enemy delights in keeping us guessing, grinning as it shoves us further down its rabbit holes. Eventually, Adam’s mother, played by Isabella Rossellini, refers to her son as a “third-rate actor,” as if he were his double. Villeneuve’s Toronto—a dense, characterless hive of glass and concrete—diffuses its residents’ identities to the point that they can literally trade lives without anyone noticing. In a city where no one seems to care who you are, it’s easy to be someone else entirely.
Villeneuve transforms the city into a place we both recognize and don’t. In one moment, it’s bland and ordinary; in the next, it’s alienating and nightmarish. When Adam ventures to Mississauga, he passes those Marilyn Monroe condos, the buildings’ sensuous bows and curves appearing sci-fi and strange, like an apartment complex designed by Salvador Dalí. Elsewhere, Villeneuve shoots interlaced streetcar wires from a low angle, like they’re the web of some enormous arachnid terrorizing the streets. Then he shows that arachnid: a SkyDome-size tarantula stalking the lakeshore. It’s unclear how the giant tarantula fits into the film’s grander logic. Is it the cause of Adam’s restless nights? Is it the bad dream of a sleepy city? In Enemy, meaning seems irrelevant: all Villeneuve cares about is making Toronto sinister.
It comes as a welcome change. Over the past few years, we’ve seen Toronto portrayed postcard-pretty in films like Chloe and Take This Waltz. It was great to see Liam Neeson stroll through Allan Gardens, or to share in Michelle Williams’ giddiness as she crests towards bliss on the Centre Island Scrambler. But Villeneuve offers a refreshingly menacing alternative to that sugary wonderland, set against a backdrop of foreboding apartment blocks and a soundtrack of grinding, screeching streetcars. When Anthony barnstorms Adam’s utilitarian apartment—concrete shear walls, tiny balcony, the kind of condo that’s so ubiquitous in Toronto that it’s hard to identify the exact building—he brusquely berates his twin: “What the fuck is this place, man? You live here?”
Watching Enemy, Torontonians can’t help but think of all that ails us: the urban-suburban divide, the calamity of civic mismanagement, the cringe-inducing international attention. Intentionally or not, Villeneuve has chosen the perfect moment to tap into the city’s notorious identity crisis. It’s nice, for once, to see a filmmaker revel in the schizoid chaos.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
In Theatres Now