Spiders and Dictators: Deciphering Some of the Chaos in Villeneuve’s Enemy

enemy jake gyllenhaal

I recently watched Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2014). I like it. I like it a lot.

Of course, not everyone feels the same, and many who don’t care for it seem to be troubled by its obscurity. Certainly, this is not a film for the lazy viewer. That said, it’s not impossible (or even all that difficult) to make some sense of it either.

The film opens with a title card that claims, “Chaos is order yet undeciphered”; and the entire film can be seen as an effort to present a work of art which viewers can then use to prove the claim’s truthfulness to themselves.

Below, you’ll find my attempt to make some sense of the film. Enemy may be dark, haunting, and cryptic, but it can be read all the same.

It’s About 1 Man, Not 2 
Enemy makes a lot more “sense” and indeed, has the power to say a lot more, if you understand it as a film about a single man and not as one about man and his mysterious and inexplicable doppelganger. 

While many who watch the film may come to this conclusion on their own, allow me to take a moment to present some of the evidence in the film that supports it. Also, while I do recognize that the moment when Mary reacts to the line that “Anthony’s” wedding band has left on his finger does undercut the one-man-not-two theory just a tad, I don’t care. Here’s why:

The film opens with a shot of an unnamed pregnant woman (“Anthony’s” wife Helen) alone on a bed and then moves to a scene depicting Anthony and/or Adam at secret live sex show. The implication is that this man (who is either Adam, Anthony, or both, depending on how you read the film) has left the pregnant woman alone at home in order to visit this strange and erotic show. The film then takes viewers into Adam’s classroom where he is lecturing about dictatorships. As Adam looks 100% exactly like the man at the sex show, viewers are given no reason whatsoever to expect that the two men aren’t one in the same.

That Adam is soon shown fucking a woman (Mary) in a dingy apartment can also be seen as further evidence that he is the same man what was seen at the sex show and, as a result, is also the same man who left the pregnant woman behind. For starters, Mary happens to look an awful lot like the naked woman who places the tarantula on the table during the sex show (that her face is never shown clearly is surely no accident).

On top of that, the first lines of the film, which are spoken by Adam’s mother on an answering machine, include the following: “Thank you for showing me your new apartment. I’m worried about you. I mean… how can you live like that?” These lines are our first clue that something is up with Adam and even hint at the fact that his apartment may not be his only home. After all, Adam is a professor; he probably makes a decent wage, so why has he just moved into such a small space? And why does his mother seem so perplexed by it? Easy answer: this isn’t Adam’s home, it’s just a place where he can fuck his girlfriend Mary without his wife (or “Anthony’s” wife) finding out. When Helen later accuses Anthony of infidelity (and reveals that he has cheated on her in the past), this theory becomes even more plausible than before. 

Early in the film, Adam tells one of his colleagues that he doesn’t like movies. Then, later in the film, he claims not to like blueberries. On the other hand, Anthony is a wannabe actor (he’s had small roles in 3 movies) and is very insistent that he have organic blueberries in his fridge at all times. While this could all be seen as the film’s way of separating Adam and Anthony, it may also work to do the opposite. Adam (who has a secret apartment and sleeps with Mary) cannot face the fact that he has another home and that in that home he has a pregnant wife who knows he has failed as an actor. He separates the two apparently irreconcilable parts of himself into two people (unfortunately for him, he cannot maintain the illusion forever). 

The only scene in which Adam’s mother appears on screen further supports the above. She firmly denies that there is any chance that Adam has a long-lost brother, and also criticizes him by saying, “You have enough trouble sticking with one woman, don’t you?,” making it clear that “Anthony” isn’t the only one with an infidelity problem. Then, she serves blueberries. Adam claims not to like them, but she immediately says “of course you do“; once again, she is attributing one of “Anthony’s” characteristics to Adam. Before the scene ends, Adam’s mother also tells him to “quit [his] fantasy of being a 3rd rate movie actor.” Really, that sentence alone should be enough to convince most that there is no separate Anthony; rather, there is only one rather unhinged Adam. 

Helen’s reaction to seeing Adam as a history teacher at school further supports the idea that the film depicts 1 mentally unstable man (and his subconscious) rather than 2 understandably confused ones. Helen is clearly distressed when she talks to Adam on his campus. He acts as if he has never seen her before, then leaves to teach another class. As he walks away, Helen calls “Anthony,” but he does not pick up until just a second after Adam is no longer in sight. By refusing to confirm that Adam and Anthony are separate (by have Anthony answer while Adam is still in the shot), Enemy instead seems to establish the opposite. Furthermore, when Helen sees Anthony back home, she is so upset that she cannot even bring herself to look at or speak to him. When she does finally confront him, it becomes pretty clear that she does not buy Anthony’s story, and that she thinks he knows more about this “Adam” than he says he does (since they are the same person, how could he not?).

Back to an earlier scene for a moment. When Adam first tries to find information on Anthony, he goes to his agent’s office. No one is in (it’s Saturday), but the security guard clearly recognizes him. The guard also makes it clear that the beard (which Anthony also has) is new and that neither Adam nor Anthony has been seen in the building for six months (enough time for a man to grow a beard). That Adam (who is also Anthony) goes to the building and picks up Anthony’s mail, which contains the key to the next secret sex show, just in time for the next secret sex show is surely no coincidence either.

Near the end of the film (and around the same time that Anthony is off “getting killed” with Mary), Helen says quite calmly to Adam, “Did you have a good day at school?” and “I want you to stay.” Helen seems pretty aware of the fact that her fancy apartment is paid for by a professor’s salary, not by the meager earnings of some failed actor. And, professor or actor, she is still worried that her husband will leave her for another woman (It’s what this man does. More on that later).

Though it may seem a little simple, the fact that no one ever sees Anthony and Adam in the same room together should be ignored either. With a single scene showing them together and showing others reacting to them in a sensible way, Villeneuve could have more of less destroyed the idea that Adam and Anthony are one man. He doesn’t, and the film is better off for it.

Untangling the Spider’s Web
Next, allow me to do what I can to ascribe some meaning to all the spiders (and there are quite a few of them) that are seen throughout the film. 

First, the low-hanging fruit: spiders are pretty scary a lot of the time. They are creepy, they could be lurking anywhere. They also make webs, which are used to trap and devour victims. Spiders are disturbing. They are menacing. And they take prisoners. Not only are spiders a representation of fear, but they are also a symbol for fear that controls (like a dictator perhaps? more on that in a bit…).

Once one decides that the spiders are meant to indicate something that frightens (and attempts to control) Adam, the question becomes, “well, what does he fear?” Answer: monogamous commitment, fatherhood, his inability to live as he wants without feeling guilty, his inability to live as his mother and wife think he should, and probably some other related junk to boot. 

That the spiders are related to Adam’s fear of monogamy and fatherhood (and/or of his inability to not fuck everything that moves) becomes even more apparent when one considers when and where they appear in the film.

The first time a spider appears is in the opening mysterious sex show scene. A naked woman places a tarantula on a table in front of Adam and places her heeled foot above it, as if to squash it. Viewers never see her squash it however (maybe she doesn’t); instead the film cuts to an image of Adam with his hands on his face in a rather curious configuration that actually looks pretty spiderish (he has four fingers on each side of his face). So, that’s two spider images in a scene where Adam has abandoned his loving and pregnant wife at home in order to watch other women engage in sexual acts.

Another spider appears just after Adam’s meeting with his mother. In an eerie and rather dreamlike scene, a giant spider with ridiculously long legs is shown hovering ominously over Toronto. The placement of this scene indicates that Adam associates his mother with the controlling fear is connected to spiders.

There is also an image of a spider web rather late in the film that serves to further connect Enemy‘s spiders with Adam’s problems living as his wife and mother would like him too. After Anthony crashes the car (killing Mary), Villeneuve doesn’t show viewers any blood or corpses; instead one of the car’s broken windows fills the screen. The glass has broken so that is looks unmistakably like a spider web. Mary is out of the picture, but Adam’s fears and problems remain (more on that later).

Of course, the most memorable (and downright shocking) spider in film appears in its final scene. Adam goes to tell wife goodbye before heading out to another sex show. Instead of finding his wife waiting for him on their bed (as she was at the very beginning of the film) he finds a giant, terrifying spider filling his entire bed room (in his mind, wife and spider are, in this moment, symbolically one in the same). Just when Adam is about to go cheat on his wife and to begin the cycle of behavior that started the film all over again, Villeneuve presents a spider so large and terrifying that people will be talking about it long after they’ve forgotten the rest of the film. When greeted with this image, viewers are likely to jump in fear, but Adam just stands and stares; this fear, this situation, and this infidelity are nothing new to him.

On top of that, this final spider also makes it painfully clear that killing “Anthony” and Mary does nothing to benefit Adam. That image of the giant spider in the bed room is by no means a victory. Anthony may be dead (whatever that means), Mary may be dead, but Adam hasn’t broken free of anything. He looks at the key to the sex show with relish, he goes to tell his wife goodbye, and he sees her as a monstrous embodiment of his fears, as a symbol of that which controls him, and as a representation of his more reprehensible tendencies. The tarantula from the beginning of the film hasn’t died; it followed him home and grew into a giant instead. Even with one girl friend out of the picture, Helen (along with her unborn child) is still something that Adam fears and will keep trying to run from (by sleeping with other women). After all, Mary was never the problem, Adam was.

In short, the spiders and spidery images in the film can primarily be seen as Enemy‘s way of signalling some of Adam’s anxieties and emotions. The spiders tell viewers that Adam is afraid or upset while also telling them what it is that causes him to feel that way. The spiders are also a reminder of that which controls Adam against his will and apparent nature. Like a man living under a dictator, Adam cannot escape that which would seek to trap to coerce him into living and behaving a certain way. 

The Dictator Inside Ourselves
According to this Slate article, Villeneuve has said the following about Enemy: “Sometimes you have compulsions that you can’t control coming from the subconscious… they are the dictator inside ourselves.” 

While Adam is being directed by his mother, by his wife, and by society to be a father and a husband and to uphold his commitment to his wife, he is also compelled to do all he cannot to do so. He lies to himself, he lies to his wife, he lies to Mary, he lies to his mother, he is unfaithful, and he does not stay home. Adam’s nature is at odds with what is expected of him. He attempts to force himself to be a husband a father anyway. He cuts himself in two. He oppresses one side of himself in an attempt to free the other. It does not work. 

In a lecture that he gives near the beginning of the film, Adam says the following: Control. It’s all about control. Every dictatorship has one obsession, and that’s it… It’s important to remember that this is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history.” That he says these lines twice and that the shots of him doing so are intercut with shots of him banging Mary (twice) in his dingy apartment adds context to these lines. Yes, dictators are obsessed with control. So is Adam. Yes, dictatorships have a tendency to repeat themselves. So does Adam. 

Adam also tells his students that one of the ways in which dictatorships keep their citizens in line is through the censorship of information. Once one accepts that Adam and Anthony are the same man, Enemy can be seen as a story about a man who censors information from himself in an attempt to comply with certain expectations. Adam lies to himself. He forgets Anthony (for a time). He creates a persona that loves his wife and does not sleep with Mary.

In his class, Adam claims that humanity tends to create totalitarian regimes. These regimes are part of larger cycles that trap us all (like webs). Adam creates such a regime in himself by trying to force himself be a father and husband, even though he is constantly compelled not to be. At the same time, he cannot escape the destructive patterns of behavior that he has already established, nor can he free himself from the expectations and codes of behavior that are imposed on him. The spiders would have him live one way, but a large part of him desires to live another. Neither is going to back down. He will continue to live in fear. He will not fully face himself. The spiders will not go away. Adam is controlled. Adam attempts to control himself. He is a man oppressed. He is dictator and citizen all in one. 

In his follow-up to his lecture on dictators, Adam tells his students that It was Hegel who said that all the greatest world events happen twice, and then Karl Marx added, ‘The first time it was a tragedy. The second time it was a farce.‘” In light of these lines, the fact that the film is structured as a sort of closed loop takes on heightened significance. 

Until Next Time
There you have it: some of my thoughts on the bleak and beautiful puzzle that is Enemy. Of course, my interpretation is by no means the only possible one for this film. While Enemy does encourage certain readings, it is also crafted in a way that allows for many others. So, if you have some thoughts on this film that differ from mine, feel free to share. 

Also, also, I am aware of the fact that this film is a loose-ish adaptation of José Saramago’s novel The Double. I choose not to discuss the novel above, because I do not know enough about it. Simple as that. (The film is a separate work of art anyway and should be able to stand alone.)


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