Fleeing a Spider’s Web

Enemy, directed by Denis Villeneuve, Canada-Spain, 2013

Reviewed by Dr Franco Ferrarini, Gastroenterologist and Film Reviewer


Adapted from Josè Saramago’s novel The Double, Enemy is an intriguing film directed by Denis Villeneuve. The film narrative employs multiple metaphors, embedded in a dream-like environment, which may be difficult to notice or fully understand at first glance. As is usual for the novels of Saramago, the Nobel Prize laureate in literature, there can be several interpretations to his seemingly straightforward stories.

Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a weary and depressed history teacher whose life unfolds in a boring, predictable way. Everyday, he delivers the same lecture on the fraudulent annihilation of people’s identity brought about by totalitarian regimes. To emphasize this message, Villeneuve employs recurring images of big, uniform skyscrapers and cars stuck in traffic jams on a background of a characterless skyline, enticing the viewer to think about the loss of individuality in western societies. Adam meets his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent) everyday at the same time, and they make love in a rather mechanical way.  All of a sudden Adam’s life is turned upside down by the appearance of Anthony Claire (Jake Gyllenhaal again), an actor physically identical to him; they even have a similar scar on their chest. However, Anthony is a determined and assertive family man married to pregnant Helen (Sarah Gadon). A love-hate relationship develops between Adam and Anthony which culminates with them swapping partners. Only tragedy can happen when the rules of the game are broken; the film ends with a sensational scene, one of the most astounding in the history of cinema.

Many questions arise in the viewer’s mind during and after watching this thought-provoking film.

Could Adam be affected by schizophrenic psychosis? This does not seem the case, since his partner Mary, as well as Anthony, both recognize the physical existence of two human beings.

Could Adam and Anthony be twins? This is a tougher question to answer; when Adam asks his mother (Isabella Rossellini) if he has a twin brother, she strongly denies, but later refers to Anthony as ‘a class C actor’ proving that she is aware of his existence.

Could Adam and Anthony be Siamese twins who inherited a scar after surgical cleavage?

From a psychoanalytical viewpoint Anthony could be interpreted as Adam’s Double, his Doppelgänger. The notion of the ‘Doppelgänger’ was described by Otto Rank in 1914, as the shadow of a person who bears all the evil of someone’s personality, just like Mr Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel.

The mysterious aura of Adam and Anthony’s story continues with unexplained scenes of spiders crawling throughout the film, a detail that was absent from Saramago’s novel. Big, hairy, scary spiders randomly appear, either explicitly at the beginning and at the end of the film and in Adam’s dreams, or implicitly as the web-like scribbles on the blackboard, and the tramway wires criss-crossing in the sky. What do these ‘spiders’ symbolise? Could they be a metaphor for dictatorships, with their web-like structure designed to control everything and everybody? This sounds like a reasonable explanation but there is probably more: spiders in Greco-Roman mythology derive from Arachne, a maiden who challenged the Goddess Athena in a weaving contest. Arachne won the contest but, frightened by Athena’s rage, hung herself. She was then transformed by Athena into a spider, and condemned to weave for eternity. Spiders are frightening animals but Arachne’s myth identifies them also as a sign of femininity; Villeneuve seems to share this view, since spiders and female characters are often associated in his film. This ambivalence could be explained in a psychoanalytical fashion according to the theories of Carl Jung’s archetypes of the Great Mother as opposed to the Terrible Mother. The ‘feminine interpretation’ is supported by the names of the women: Mary, like the mother of Jesus Christ, could stand for the Great Mother, whereas Helen, like Helen of Troy, the cause of the Trojan war described in Homer’s Iliad, could stand for the Terrible Mother. Revisiting the significance of names again, Adam was the first man created by God. According to the Bible, God then created woman by extracting a rib from Adam, which brings us back to the scar in Adam’s and Anthony’s chests.

Is it possible to find a unifying message in all of the aforementioned speculations? Here is my personal interpretation: Every individual carries an evil Double (the ‘enemy’ of the film’s title), which may bring about dreadful consequences both at an individual level and at a society level. At an individual level, the Double exerts its effects on men through their traditional leading role in war and conflict, and in women, through the exploitation of their roles as the Terrible Mother. At a social level, the Double is totalitarianism with its annihilation of individuality and its tragic consequences of mass destruction, genocide, and so forth.

Enemy is a multi-layered film, hence my explanation may not be welcomed by everyone. Hopefully it might induce readers to watch the film once or twice to appreciate its remarkable artistry, and perhaps discover more theories about its meaning.

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