Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy”


While an undergrad I was forced to read Marshall Berman’s All That Is Sold Melts Into Air. Although most of the tome has thankfully slipped from my brain, I still recall the opening. Berman, a committed lefty, bemoans the failure of the utopian state, drawing on the heavily state planned Brasilia as an example. For Berman, this was an instance of the failure of the imagination because it was so artificial, so profoundly divorced from the organic and its population of pathetic subjects. The problem of Brasilia then is that it was an inorganic model dropped into space, divorced from the currents of life and scarcely functional. This strange sterility actually appealed to piano virtuoso Glenn Gould a great deal, perhaps because it combined the aesthetics of a hospital with the anonymous qualities of the music of John Dowland’s that he so admired.


The soul of Toronto, as far as it has one, could best be summarized by the PATH, an underground walkway system composed of wall to wall stores and subways that allows the residents of skyrises to head below the earth and never touch the surface of the city. On a quiet Sunday afternoon it often seems as eerie as an abandoned sci-fi set. Enemy happens outside of this, on the surface of the things of this city. This place of things is what Wyndham Lewis once memorably fictionalized as the city of Momaco, “the nevernever land … the living-death, the genuine blank-of-blanks out of which no speck of pleasantness or civilized life could come.”


Denis Villeneuve‘s film Enemy is an adaptation of Portuguese novelist José Saramago‘s The Double (O Homem Duplicado, or The Duplicated Man), re-located to the grim reality of Toronto. It follows a history lecturer as he lurches toward the evaporation of his self-hood after accidentally encountering a third rate actor (with numerous names) who is his exact doppelganger. When the two men meet, their lives are torn apart and one of them is eventually destroyed. The opening dream sequence bears a striking resemblance to the protagonist’s repeated history lesson. It features a woman masturbating on top of a mirror while a crowd of men watch. The woman disrobes and crushes spider with her shoe. The history teacher is a man who can hardly articulate what is happening before his eyes. His lecture is about the state’s manipulation of people through the control of information and how this tends to be repeated throughout history. The teacher’s fear is that the old Marxist maxim will come true; the fear that everything will repeat, first as tragedy, then as farce. His first encounter with his double, of course, is in his role as the bumbling supporting player in a ‘feel good’ comedy.


The city where the film unfolds is sparsely populated. Walking the street, its characters are remarkably alone. The people they encounter are cogs in the workings of buildings and businesses. The most dense areas are the streetcars packed with zombified workers in transport and the dull faced school children of the professor who scarcely fills a few rows of his class room. The history lesson is barely witnessed.


The curtains never close in his apartment. But this is not a sign of openness but of the fact that the world has been flattened (as it is on the glass) and its possibilities are retracting and turning toward redundancy.


There are two basic models at play in the film. The reflection between the doubles and the glide reflection between the trinity of women through which they circulate: Two blonde women and a blackhaired mother. Each of these characters can (seemingly) differentiate the doubles, but this differentiation proves to matter less than either double would wish. In other words, the mechanism that the female line delineates is the negation of any depth to the male co-ordinate. When substance is denied as pure surface, it dies (the crash). When confirmed, the spider appears. The pregnant woman is the spider – the unilateral dictatorship of death – a relation established on an expansive line and a breathless distance. Reproduction is death. The threat of dying is evident in the spectre of pregnancy that haunts the film. This unborn child is as much a threat as the double because it is, again, another form of doubling. The realization that you have no freedom, your actions are irrelevant, and you are, somehow, less than a surface at best, leads to transparency.



This transparency always seems to be at the edge for the film’s characters. The edge is in fact a transparent void without reflection. The moment that flirts the most with this is the instance where the mother suggests that the life stories of both men may actually be the story of one man alone. In fact, what the mother says is entirely ambiguous and could apply to either character. There is too much of a lacunae of biographical information to know otherwise. The indifference of the identity of the son is then mirrored by the indifference of the pregnant woman to which of the men is the father. He is only a cipher in either case. Something like the scar for a wound that both men bear, whose source is undisclosed and which lacks the singularity of an event or historical encounter. The scar is a cipher that marks them as belonging to a reality of which they have no phenomenal knowledge or access.


The film opens with the text, “Chaos is order yet undeciphered.” Deciphered, each double articulates a specific individual with a biography (those who they have the closest biological relationship to that have the greatest power to render them ciphers again). Undeciphered, they each operate as a place holder in set of co-ordinates that span the web structure of a neverneverland. Undeciphered also marks the redundancy of the cipher. The cipher reads as chaos only because it is undeciphered, that is redundant without being itself. This last point is what is key to understanding the fatalism with which the history professor acquiesces to the demands of his acting double. His acquiescence, of course, also makes him into an actor, sealing the collapse of their identities. This also confirms the total irrelevance of rebellion. No option for action was viable, only got acting. All were ineluctably doomed. If he had refused his double’s demands, the chain of events might not have led to his double’s death and his affirmation. However, refusal could have meant his death – symbolically and psychologically – and his double’s affirmation.


The illusion of possibility is the play between the line and void of the spider web, of the pane and its frame, of the near obsessive proliferation of vertical lines in the dark interior shots, of the power lines of the street cars and telephones. The arc of the film is the leap from one grid of lines to another. The second does not offer the supposed freedom of the void, but reveals that the leap was only into a spider’s web. So the philosopher of history is less a gadfly than a fly ready to be entombed by the spider and completely emptied into a shell.


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