Enemy is one of the most stunning films I’ve seen this year. Its genius is composite and gestaltic; it lies in the mind-blowing script of Gullón, the paradisal and dystopic direction of Villeneuve, and the compelling yet disturbing acting by Gyllenhaal.
While the film has received near universal acclaim, the plot and its incomprehensibility to many viewers has presented an interpretative problem that has spawned many analyses online. While not intending to sound solipsistic, Enemy truly spoke to me in a way few other films did, and as such, I understand it somewhat differently from the majority of these reviews. Here is my own analysis of the film.
Adam/Mary – History professor and his girlfriend. Anthony/Helen – actor and his wife.
Villeneuve tells us that the film is about dictatorship, and this is true. Beginning at the very start of the film we hear a lecture about dictatorships – a subject which history professor Adam (Gyllenhaal) happens to specialize in.
What dictatorships or totalitarian systems do – and hereafter I want to use the latter – is that they subjugate people. Totalitarian systems oppress people, but they also suppress awareness of this subjugation; they do this in a number of ways. Adam tells his students that in Ancient Rome, the government sponsored bread and circuses for the people in order to reduce dissent. Yet bread and circuses are at their core a type of entertainment. Modern governments do this in different ways, we are told – yet the focus on ‘entertainment’ will be relevant later on.
From hereon, we’ll be jumping around a bit in our analysis, but I’ll break the news to you first: Adam and Anthony are one and the same. Bear with me for a little while longer. When Adam and Anthony meet in the hotel, Anthony explains the presence of a scar on his stomach, asking Adam if he has one too. Adam recoils in fear and horror, and flees the hotel. How do we understand this?
There is no scar on Adam’s stomach, because that scar happened when Adam/Anthony (hereafter “AA” to refer to both) was in a car crash which resulted in Mary’s death. Mary was the girlfriend of AA, or at least his mistress, while he was already with Helen. The scene where AA gets his scar, and Mary is killed in a car crash, is marked by a spiderweb on the windshield of the car. Spiders live inside webs.
Return to spiders. The spiders in this film are not some loose analogy for dictatorships or other systems of the political kind. But they do represent a totalitarian system. They are avatars of memory, and the totalitarian control that traumatic memories of the past have over people’s minds.
At the very start of the film – and remember that it isn’t in chronological order, so this is actually the ending scene – AA is in a club [entertainment] and a beautiful attractive waitress crushes a spider. AA is crushing the pain of his own memories, by seeking entertainment. This liberates him from the totalitarian control they exert over him. What memories, you ask?
The answer is given earlier on, when Adam has a dream of walking down a hallway, passing by a woman who is at once also a spider. He wakes up, and sees a woman whose hair matches the spider pattern. This is another factual memory – it is one of the other girls that Anthony cheated on his wife with. Anthony has a serious problem with commitment and infidelity, and is repeatedly unfaithful – not just to his partner.
What about the giant spider walking over the entire city? This is explained by the poster for the film, which shows that exact spider in the city right over Anthony (we know it’s him by the jacket) but also inside his head. This is key. The spider (the gargantuan weight of his traumatic memories) is above him, but it is also inside him; its influences on his life are pervasive and absolute like some totalitarian dictator – but this is also an integral part of his very being. His experiences are in his head to stay.
At the very end in the movie, Adam has taken the place of Anthony. He goes into the bedroom to see Helen, and is greeted by a giant spider. Why? Because his memories are coming back to haunt him. So what exactly does this mean?
The entire film is a story of Anthony being confronted by his past. Adam is a representative of this, and the fact that he is a teacher of HISTORY attests to the fact. Adam represents a past Anthony that was unfaithful to Helen. But Adam was so meek and quiet – he even allowed Anthony to fuck his wife. How can we say that he was a representation of Anthony’s unfaithfulness?
The answer is simple; Adam is an unmanly coward, and unfaithfulness is a form of cowardice, or a lack of living up to one’s responsibilities as a man. This is attested to when Anthony is in the car with Mary who he has just tried to fuck – just before they crash, he says to her ‘You think I’m not a man?’ She DOES think he’s not a man – because he is unfaithful, something she has just discovered, precipitating their dramatic exit from the hotel. Thus Adam’s weakness/ unmanliness facilitates Anthony’s unfaithfulness – Adam does not stop Anthony from fucking his girlfriend, because he represents Anthony’s own past weakness (and thus, his weak masculinity).
That scene where Anthony is having sex with Mary, who then freaks out when she sees the wedding ring [marks?] on his finger? This was real. Mary did not realize that Anthony was married. The freakout did indeed happen. The crash did indeed happen. And Mary died, and Anthony was injured as a result – giving us the scar from earlier.
Why is Anthony an actor? Because he is acting out the horrors of the past in his head. The nightmares are all his. The spider at the end looks as if it is about to consume Adam, after he assumes the role of Anthony and walks into the bedroom. It is his memories of sinfulness, and the weight of his guilt, which seems about to consume him.
Adam IS Anthony, so Adam allowing Anthony to fuck his girlfriend represents AA’s weak, sensitive, humanistic side failing to exert control over his brash, Dionysian side. This failure resulted in the death of Mary and nearly also the destruction of his marriage. This haunts him to this very day.
Simplified, it looks something like this:
- AA are/is one person
- The spiders are his memories and the weight of his guilt
- They constitute a totalitarian system which holds him down and oppresses him, and dictates to him his actions; they force him to continuously remember the past
- Adam, a history professor (the past) represents the past AA – he is weak and generally a shitty person. He allows himself to cheat on his own wife, because he is weak/unmanly/a coward.
- Adam’s weakness leads to the death of Mary, his girlfriend and mistress. It gives him a scar, which stays with him.
- AA suppresses this memory by entertainment, such as by attending clubs where the spider (his past) is crushed. But it keeps coming back to haunt him.
- The spider is a totalitarian system above him (in terms of his control) but inside him (as it is constituted by his memories).
- The film ends with AA having gone through all of the memories of this traumatic past. A gargantuan spider shows us how AA is confronted by his memories, and thus his own guilt and shame, when he goes into his wife’s bedroom.
- As viewers, we are not told whether AA’s suppression of his past, his memories, and his guilt is successful or not. We do not know whether he stays with Helen, or what her transformation into his guilty conscience might entail (perhaps accusing him of another affair).
- That is Enemy, and it is undoubtedly Villeneuve’s most impressive masterpiece to date.