Two striking films are hitting the fall film festival circuit in a matter of days: “Prisoners,” an emotionally bruising crime thriller about family, loss and sin, and “Enemy,” an adaptation of José Saramago’s novel, “The Double,” which is an enigmatic psychological drama about identity, the subconscious and the male ego. The connection? Other than both films’ dark, disturbing tone, they represent the work of two collaborators—French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and actor Jake Gyllenhaal—who, as occasionally happens with director/actor pairings, seem to have unlocked something exceptional while in each other’s company.
“Prisoners” has already been met with rave reviews out of the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado last weekend (read ours here), but it’s “Enemy,” an intense psychological doppelgänger mindbender with provocative psychosexual undertones, that actually came first and spawned what has already become an exciting collaboration, one that arguably has pushed each man to create his best work thus far. Happily, throughout the course of film history, attuned wavelengths have sometimes found one another, and both men seem to believe that’s what happened here—Gyllenhaal, in our recent interview with the pair, called it fate.
Feeling introspective, and at a crossroads in his career, the actor packed up from Los Angeles, moved to New York, grew a beard and threw himself into Off-Broadway stage productions. So when he met Villeneuve for a drink on a fall afternoon in Manhattan to discuss the Academy Award nominee’s “Enemy” script, he was looking for something new and challenging. After a discussion over a couple of glasses of wine which apparently made them both disproportionately drunk, he found it. The two instantly clicked and not just because of the script: “When we met it was as if I’d met an older brother,” Gyllenhaal said. “Like I had met somebody who had so much more experience in their life and at the same time was contemplating similar questions that I had: what is it to be a man and how do you become a man?” Villeneuve, described by the actor as “charismatic and loving and a bit of a seducer,” said simply, “It was the beginning of a beautiful collaboration.”
Wrought with emotionally complex texture, “Enemy” also has a somewhat technical challenge at its core: Gyllenhaal has to play the two leads—one a disturbed University lecturer with a strained, mostly sexual relationship with his girlfriend, the other an identical lookalike, an actor who is married with a baby on the way. Is this double a twin? A mirror image? Something more uncanny? “Enemy” explores the inexorably intertwined lives of these two men to gripping effect. But it turns out the tricky live wire act of playing two different people wasn’t the end game for either artist. “There’s a tendency to want to play the two parts so differently, as an acting ‘opportunity’ and that never really was Denis’ intention,” Gyllenhaal said, noting the subtle similarities between each man was much more interesting to explore.
Indeed, Villeneuve was attracted to the source material for the psychological opportunities it presented, rather than its overt concept. “There was a kind of a feeling of ‘Vertigo,’ ” the director said, unintentionally but appropriately referencing Hitchcock’s masterpiece that probes similar themes of duality and identity. “That kind of ambiguity and that kind of mystery that was able to open a door to go inside me. I wanted to open doors of unknown feelings that are uncomfortable and mysterious.”
“Enemy” went so well that when Villeneuve started prep on “Prisoners,” he instantly thought of working with Gyllenhaal again for the role of Loki, a resolutely determined detective who questions everyone’s truths. “It was more than a collaboration: it was the birth of a friendship, a real one.” said Villeneuve. “And it’s more like brothers, a love and hate relationship meaning that we are bound together.” So it’s not necessarily easy: “Often actors need a sort of ego stroke,” admitted Gyllenhaal, “because we’re so sensitive as a breed. [But] what I find to be really comforting is a sort of brutal honesty. I know sometimes it’s not easy to hear but [with Denis] it’s an open conversation, one where I’ve never felt afraid to be my best self and my worst self… Great directors know how to get in there—it’s like breaking a horse.”
Unnerving in its meticulously controlled tone, “Enemy,” which co-stars Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, and Isabella Rossellini, is a challenging piece of work that works as a complex psychological thriller, and also, for those who care to go deeper, as a dreamlike meditation on the unconscious, on order and chaos, on the id and ego, and how they impact on our fragile sense of identity. “Whenever I’ve tried to describe it I’ve always said, “I wonder if you would even call it a movie,” Gyllenhaal confirms. “In a way you would call it an experience.” However the next time they work together (which really seems to be an inevitability with Villeneuve declaring at one point, “I would love to make all my movies with Jake”) they’ll have a heavier weight of expectation to face. Perhaps they’ll want to subvert it and do a knockabout comedy? “A musical, that’s our next project,” Gyllenhaal laughed. Villeneuve begged to disagree: “I think it’s going to be a dark violent film about the unconscious again.” Which, on the evidence of “Prisoners” and “Enemy,” is absolutely fine by us.
“Enemy” makes its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, September 8th.