Dissecting ‘Enemy’ With Director Denis Villeneuve
Teeming with anxiety and a quiet hiss of paranoia, Denis Villeneuve’s latest work of thrilling cinema, Enemy, plays out like a confounding nightmare that wanders between myriad levels of consciousness. Shroud in a yellow layer of smog, the film brings you into a beautifully shot world that feels less like the downtown Toronto in which it is set, and more like a psychological landscape of ever-encroaching fear.
Stripped to its most basic storyline, the film follows Jake Gyllenhaal as Adam Bell, a history professor caught in a life of repetition whose mind begins to unravel as he discovers the existence of his doppelganger. As an adaptation of José Saramago’s The Double, Villeneuve’s Enemy extracts the novel’s most menacing tones and haunted psychological through-lines to create a psychodramatic thriller told with the surrealistic undercurrents of dream logic, making it as playful for the audience as it is on the page.
Also starring the wonderful, Sarah Gadon, Enemy premiered last September at the Toronto Film Festival, but will finally have its theatrical release this weekend. Earlier today, I caught up with Villeneuve to discuss the friendship that evolved the film, the hell of repetition, and the importance of imagery over words.
And in addition, we’ll be giving giving away an Enemy Prize Pack, featuring a poster for the film signed by Jake Gylenhaal, as well as a copy of the fantastic soundtrack. Head to the bottom of the interview for details on how to enter.
Can you tell me about the genesis of the film and how you can to adapt it from José Saramago’s novel?
The birth of this project is friendship. I wanted to work with a producer that was a very close friend of mine—really, the best producer in Canada. We’re very close friends and we wanted to work together, so one morning said, if you want to work together we have to find a project right now or we’ll never do it. So then we began to brainstorm, and I learned that he had the rights to The Double and I remembered when I read the book that I was so excited about it. Then reading it again, I just felt that it had some links to a previous movie I did about the ghosts of the past and the fact that repetition is hell. We started to work on it and I felt like it was a perfect project for me at that moment because it’s about what I was thinking about the world, and from an artistic point of view, it would give me the chance to work with one actor.
In my previous work, I was working with several actors really in front of the camera and I never had the chance to build a relationship with them. I had a relationship with the production designer, cinematographer, editor, but not with the actors. I felt, as a director, I was in deep, deep need to develop a relationship with one actor and to talk about and think about acting, directing, movie-making, and to find different ways of directing and acting together and I wanted to explore. This had very few characters and very few locations, so I felt it was the perfect project to do that. It came from a deep need, and so I approached Jake with that in mind. In fact, this movie is about friendship. It was born in friendship and developed a very beautiful friendship with other people.
I saw the film really as a physical manifestation of a very frightening type of anxiety and a quiet, inescapable fear. Was this something you wanted to extract from the novel and play with on screen?
Yes, yes in the book this notion of paranoia was very presented—and the fact that the character was afraid of the outside world and that he wanted to be as invisible as possible. He was in a desperate state and in order to get out of that desperate state, he had to be in contact with the outside world and that provoked a lot of anxiety in him. I loved to play with a kind of paranoia thriller like this, a neurotic thriller. It was something that I had been wanting to do for a long time and it was so exciting to find landscapes and camera movements that will create that tension and that nightmarish feeling. It’s a very playful movie. We were a bunch of kids playing with a big toy.
You’ve mentioned your interest in exploring how a film can hit on both a subconscious emotional level and a concrete level. I found this really interesting, as well as how the experience of watching the film was a very surreal experience itself. I mentioned to a friend afterwards that it felt like I’d been dreaming with my eyes open.
Yes, and it was inside the book. It was always a dialogue between the inner world of the character and the outside world. He was always having an inner dialogue with his common sense. And in the movie, this common sense is removed, the inner voice is not there and I wanted to try and always be in contact with the inner world all the time.
Aesthetically, the film had a very strong feeling of contained pressure to it. The yellows of the world, the grand architecture, and overall atmosphere was very disquieting. How did you want the visual aspects of the film to play on a tonal level?
Again, it’s all inspired by the book. It was exactly the landscape we were looking for because it was a massive urban landscape that looks like a monster and promotes a feeling of paranoia and anxiety. But at the same time, we tried to shoot it as our phantasm, the way I dreamed about the city as I was reading the book. There’s a feeling of melancholia and a depressive feeling and a sad warmth while I was reading the book, and I felt that those colors were very specifically chosen for the feeling it provoked and what the audience might as well.
I read that you called Enemy your most personal film. What is it about the story that felt so akin to your own sensibility?
I’ve always been attracted to stories or subjects that I’m afraid of, and one of my biggest fears is the feeling that I’m trapped in repetition and will repeat over and over again the same mistake in my life, a fear that I won’t be able to evolve past that as a human being, and that I won’t be able to become a real adult—meaning, someone who is totally free, someone who is not dealing with ghosts coming from the past and angers and fears from the past. Enemy is the expression of that fear.
How did you settle on Jake and Sarah to portray the two people existing inside that fear?
Sarah is a fantastic actress, and she is a very, very cerebral and brilliant woman. In the audition, she was really able to blend both levels—to be a part of the emotional realism of the scenes, but at the same time, to express the fantastic aspect of the scenes and the surrealism of the scenes by the way she was acting. She was very precise and she was really an actress that is maybe the best one I have ever worked with.
And about Jake, he’s a very personal actor and very creative. He’s very ambitious and someone who is not afraid of taking a risk in front of the camera. I really wanted an actor who would be willing to be approach this part like in a laboratory where we could experiment. I was looking for this kind of relationship, and when I offered him the part, I wrote to him a long explanation of what was the meaning of the movie for me and why I wanted to do this and how I would do it. It just happened that he had the same concerns, the same fears, the same intuition about intimacy, responsibility, and relationships. I think he had come out of a very tough shooting and he wanted to go back to the joy of acting and just having fun with a friend. In talking to each other we found that we were looking for the same thing. And from that was the birth of a very beautiful creative friendship, and this encounter with Jake, for me, it’s a big gift from life.
Can you talk about the imagery of the spider and what that represented for you?
The spider is a very precise image. The Double is a very complex, yet very simple story that is expressed in a very complicated way. There were some elements in the book that took 45 pages to express, and I said to myself, I cannot have the luxury to take 45 minutes to express such an idea, I need one image, a strong image. I always love when filmmakers are trying to express ideas with images that are beyond words, and the spider was a perfect image I found.
What I love about this image is that I think it’s a very strong and poetic image, but I liked the fact that you can understand it with your own sensibility. You can understand it, but it’s an understanding from inside yourself, not from an intellectual point of view, but more from what you feel as you see the image. I like to leave the audience free of interpretation, because for me, the pleasure of Enemy is an enigma. It’s really a puzzle and it’s designed in a playful way to play with the audience. So if I give the key from the start, it’s a bit boring. I love to leave the audience free of their own interpretation, but all the keys to understand the image are in this story.
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