Denis Villeneuve’s enigmatic film Enemy had a quiet release here so I’m probably a bit late to the party. Although it wasn’t widely seen, I’m sure those that have seen it have had a pretty strong reaction to it. In the following piece I will put forward my take on just what it all means. So, heavy spoilers to follow. As in, this will make no sense if you haven’t seen Enemy. Why haven’t you seen Enemy? Go see Enemy. As for the rest of you, let’s see if we can decipher some chaos.
Enemy introduces us to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Adam, a professor who lives alone in his apartment which is occasionally frequented by his girlfriend, Mary. He catches sight of an actor in a film who looks exactly like him. Eventually we meet the actor, Anthony (also Gyllenhaal), who shares an apartment with his pregnant wife, Helen. The film puts forward a reality where Adam and Anthony wrestle with the fact they are identical in every way which creates great tension between them.
I promise I’ll get to the spiders later. First I want to address the core of my theory.
Adam doesn’t exist.
At least, not the character we know him as. Adam is a persona that Anthony creates in order to deal with his fear of commitment and perceived loss of individuality. ‘Adam’ is Anthony’s deep, dark subconscious made flesh. Sometimes we see Anthony as himself – spending time with his wife, riding his motorbike, etc. But sometimes Anthony takes on the persona of Adam. To make matters more complicated, sometimes he sees himself as Adam, and imagines an Anthony to converse with. Bear with me.
Anthony has rented a small apartment that he goes to be Adam. He spends time there and imagines his girlfriend visiting. That’s right: Melanie Laurent’s character, Mary, also doesn’t exist. More on her later.
Anthony feels trapped in his marriage and is anxiety-ridden by the impending arrival of his child, which he feels will trap him further. He yearns for a time when was free. He has been forced to give up his dreams of being an actor and has taken a steady job as a professor. This pressure leads Anthony to delude himself to such a degree that when he ‘becomes’ Adam he has no memory of his real life. The ‘Adam’ creation helps Anthony deal with his insecurities and inability to engage with real life.
The delusion hits its first obstacle when Anthony sees himself in the movie. It’s a remarkable coincidence that his co-worker recommends a film he just happened to be in. I posit that this man is also a product of Anthony’s mind. The healthy part of his mind is trying to fight back against the delusion. By forcing himself to watch the movie, Anthony is taking the first steps to eroding his own fantasy.
– MILD SPOILERS FOR HITCHOCK’S VERTIGO IN THIS PARAGRAPH:
On a side note, a poster for Hitchcock’s Vertigo is clearly visible in the video store. Vertigo features two separate characters, played by one actor (Kim Novak) who are revealed to be exactly the same person. I doubt this poster’s placement was a coincidence.
– END SPOILER –
After becoming obsessed with the ‘doppelgänger’ he visits the actor’s talent agency (in reality, his own) where he is recognised by the security guard and given a key. The key is very important, pay attention 007. The guard remarks that he has not been there for six months. Later, we learn the Anthony’s wife is six months pregnant. It makes sense that upon learning of the pregnancy Anthony did ‘the right thing’ by stopping his unreliable acting work and starting the teaching job. Remember, during the ‘Adam’ scenes Anthony is not pretending at any time, he genuinely believes he is a different person called Adam.
When he calls who he thinks is the actor’s wife she recognises his voice straight away, which confuses him. At this point I want to highlight Sarah Gadon’s remarkable performance. Her character feels inconsistent if you take the story at face value, but if you buy my theory, she is a tragic figure. Fully aware of her husband’s illness but trying to accommodate him, she feels it’s the best way for him to get better if she supports his fantasy.
I believe that this is the point in the story when she first realises something is not right with her husband. After this, we get our first scene of Anthony actually AS Anthony. He argues with himself on the phone. When Helen asks about the phone call, she suspects he may have restarted his affair with Mary again: “Are you seeing her?” Slowly, she understands it’s something far more upsetting. Perhaps this is not the first time he has lost touch with reality.
Anthony falls down the rabbit hole further as he researches the name ‘Adam Bell’. This is the only time in the film where we see that Adam Bell is potentially a real person that works at the school. We know it’s not just something Anthony made up because Helen sees the name on the computer as well. However, there is no photo associated with the name so we can assume that Anthony just subconsciously picked a name from the faculty list, or possibly created and added it himself, to strengthen his own delusion.
Helen’s fears are confirmed when she visits her husband at work – my favourite scene in the film, Gadon is phenomenal – and he does not recognise her. This was the scene that set me on the course to forming my theory, as Helen’s reaction to seeing a man that looks identical to her husband should have been one of amazement or curiosity. Instead, she appears profoundly sad.
We then have a scene where Anthony returns home to Helen and espouses his love of blueberries. Believe it or not, this too is important. Helen is visibly distraught and does not engage Anthony in conversation as she withdraws and considers supporting her husband’s fantasy.
Soon, Adam and Anthony meet in a hotel room. Obviously for this theory to work, one of them can’t be there. I believe that the Adam persona enters but swaps over to Anthony during the scene. ‘Adam’ has to be there initially, because ‘Adam’ brings the key (the key is key). However, Anthony leaves with the key. The key is real. What took place in that hotel room was one man talking to himself.
Anthony’s jealous, petty nature starts to come to the fore has he imagines that ‘Adam’ slept with his wife. He starts stalking Mary. I believe Mary was indeed a real person that Anthony had an affair with, but the Mary we see in the film only exists in his head. She represents everything he can no longer have now that he has committed to a monogamous life.
Anthony visits his mother. The film suggests that we are watching ‘Adam’, but Isabella Rossellini’s character drops some bombshells in this scene. She reminds him of his previous indiscretions (“You already have enough trouble sticking to one woman, don’t you?”) she serves him blueberries which Anthony loves (the Adam persona does not), but most importantly she tells him he should give up on this dream of being a “third rate actor”. The façade begins to crack in this scene as Anthony finds it difficult to deny the truth.
The illusion that Anthony has constructed for himself begins to fall apart. The parts of his brain that are trying to drag him back to reality are starting to win – which results in Anthony and his creation, Adam, swapping places. Ostensibly, Anthony is righting a perceived wrong by having a night with ‘Adam’s’ girl, but in reality, Anthony is taking steps to rid himself of the monster he has manifested. Once again the character who leaves the room last is the ‘real’ character.
Anthony, who is ‘Adam’ posing as ‘Anthony’ (arrrrggggh…..my brain) tentatively goes back to his actual apartment to see his wife. As far as he’s aware, it’s the first time he’s been there, and yet, it feels familiar to him. A massive clue is broadcast in this scene. He finds a photo of Anthony and Helen. Earlier in the film, when he was trying figure out who the actor was, he holds up a photo of himself to the computer monitor to compare. The other person in the photo has been torn out. It is exactly the same photo he finds now.
When Helen comes home, she recognises something in her husband that she has not seen for a long time. He’s considerate, concerned and caring. Helen allows herself to think that he might be healed. She tests the waters by asking, “Did you have a good day at school?” This confuses Anthony, who has not completely reconciled his personalities yet. When she sees that he does not comprehend, she tells him to “forget it”.
The hotel scene between “Anthony” posing as “Adam” with Adam’s girlfriend Mary is actually taking place inside Anthony’s mind, who is in bed with his wife back at the apartment. There’s a beautiful piece of editing here where dialogue between Mary and ‘Adam’ actually overlaps into a shot of Anthony waking up in distress. The powers in his head are at war.
Helen wakes up and comforts Anthony. She tells him, “I want you to stay” – a weighted line with multiple meanings depending on the context. For Anthony it represents a breakthrough as he accepts his reality and destroys the fantasy. Meanwhile, in his head, Mary freaks out when she notices the tan line where Anthony’s wedding ring should be. The rules of their world are coming apart. They drive home, argue, and die in a car accident.
Anthony has cleansed the phantoms from his brain.
Of course a happy ending would be too easy. The next morning, Anthony discovers the key to the private disgusting gentleman’s sex club. He comes to an understanding that he can’t change who he is. A flash of mischief crosses his face as he tells his wife that he has to go out that night. He tried, he conquered his demons, but he will always be a monster in his soul.
Then Helen turns in to a giant fucking spider.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-WOMAN
So… the spiders. I was re-watching this film with my wife in order to research before I wrote this piece. My wife had not seen the film before. We were watching the scene in which Anthony observes a woman walk down the hallway with the head of a spider, and my wife turned to me and said, ‘Oh, okay, so he sees women as spiders then?’
It took me a lot longer than that to figure that one out. The spider imagery for me is nowhere near as fascinating as the split personality elements, but it still begs dissection.
I don’t think I’ll have many disagreements when I say the spiders represent Anthony’s feelings about women, specifically his afore-mentioned fear of commitment, which he sees as entrapment. The web imagery also highlights this. In the opening scene we find Anthony at the sex club, watching a naked woman squash a spider with her high heels. Anthony seems to be thoroughly enjoying this. The stripper represents his inherent promiscuity (i.e. freedom) while the spider represents his wife (imprisonment). Later in the film we see a striking image of a spider with spindly legs roaming the Toronto skyline. This shot immediately precedes the scene with Anthony’s mother, a woman he also resents as he perceives her to be controlling. Could the giant spider be his mother?
Helen takes the form of a giant spider in the final scene. The most unsettling element is not her transformation, but the fact that she recoils at the sight of Anthony. She is terrified. She knows that he’s gone back to his old ways and she’ll never have a husband that cares for her, or one that will protect her child. Indeed, she seems to fear for her life.
The final shot only serves to elevate the horror, as Anthony regards his spider-wife with a detached acceptance. A sly smile begins to cross his lips as we cut to black.
Anthony truly is his own worst Enemy.
You know… like the title.
This film is a mind-fuck of the highest order. The score will make you want to sleep with the lights on. It’s also beautifully shot, superbly acted and crafted by a creative team completely in control of their story. Every line of dialogue matters. I look forward to revisiting its gifts many times over.
– Tom Roe
Thoughts? Let me know if you have any other takes on the film in the comments below, I’d love to hear some other ideas.