Friday, July 21, 2017

A24 A-to-Z: #6. "Enemy" (2014)

Left to right: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jake Gyllenhaal
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Released: February 6, 2014
Release Number: 6
Directed By: Denis Villeneuve
Written By: Jose Sarmago (Novel), Javier Gullon
Starring: Jake Gyellenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon
Plot: A man seeks out his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie.
Major Awards: 0

The first year for A24 proved to make quite a splash with a variety of films that were as scintillating as they were genuinely good. But how do you follow up a year that was full of memorable controversy and marketing that influenced the zeitgeist? The answer was to go bigger and more artful. For the studio's sixth film, they partnered with up and coming director Denis Villeneuve, who was on the verge of having a great run of hits with Prisoners and later Sicario and Arrival. Between those was Enemy, which pitted two performances by Jake Gyllenhaal against each other to produce a tense and cryptic thriller that was full of striking imagery that earned the film praise, earning comparisons to director Christopher Nolan. While it's become a minor work in Villeneuve's filmography, it showed that he was able to make a story as complex as it was rewarding.

The history of Enemy is a bit tough to track, as it overlaps a lot with that of Prisoners. Both of the films played at festivals and starred Gyllenhaal in major roles. With that said, Prisoners was the first to come out, receiving unanimous praise and earning $122 million at the box office. It's because of this that Enemy's comparative and low key success seems stranger. It was the first of the two to actually be shot, but was released five months later. It's a strange phenomenon, especially given Prisoners' financial success. However, their equally grey moral compasses joined the works in a feeling of an auteur in the making. The Oscars would flock to him in time with Arrival, but in 2014, he was just another ambitious director.

The idea for Enemy was based partially on Jose Sarmago's "The Double," a book that focused on dual identity. Having offered the lead role to both Javier Bardem and Christian Bale, they were both rejected due to being wrong for the part. Villeneuve wanted an actor whose charisma could be both charming and despicable, often in the same scene because of the dual roles in which he would have to act off of himself. With yellow-tinged cinematography from Nicolas Bolduc, the film was technically an original story that relied heavily on the themes of Sarmago's work. The film even opened with a passage from the book, which was meant to explore the duality of life and the possibility of not recognizing your oppression in a totalitarian society. This was represented through spider imagery, which itself was modeled after the Mamman statue in Ottawa, Canada. Others view it as Gyllenhaal's view of women. Whatever the case may be, its subtext was rich.

The role for Gyllenhaal was pretty easy to pull off. In scenes where he acted opposite himself, he would have lines read to him through a headset as he stared at a tennis ball. This ball dictated where he looked at any given moment. There's rich symbolism regarding Gyllenhaal's infidelity, including the presence of the song "The Cheater," which chronicles a man's affair with another woman. The role may be difficult to understand, as the dual identities are meant to be blurred together and create a frustrating picture of a man who is both outgoing but also secretive. The camera lingers through a scene, letting the themes build. It would be later accused of occasional sexism in Gyllenhaal's character, but it was only part of the bigger picture of symbolism. When the film was released, Villeneuve had the cast sign contracts to not discuss the symbolism of spiders in the movie. In the years since, the director hasn't given his official stance on it.

While Prisoners overshadowed Villeneuve's work in 2014, Enemy did have a fairly successful start. It premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to rave reviews. It would go on to receive several awards from the Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Picture. Despite the grandiose start, the film didn't have the welcoming that Prisoners did. Whereas the 2013 film played on 3,260 screens, Enemy premiered on one screen and never played on more than 120 screens, earning a comparatively paltry $3.4 million. It was in large part because of A24's business model to have certain films, like A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, perform better through video on demand services. Like the Roman Coppola film, it mean that financially it wasn't the biggest hit, though benefited from word of mouth. The film earned a 75% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes with reviews praising its weirdness, gaining comparisons to the likes of David Lynch and Christopher Nolan.'s David Ehrlich would even claim that it had one of the scariest endings ever.

Enemy was a quaint movie, and one that was part of an odd trend for 2014. There were two other indie films released that focused on actors playing dual roles. The Double and The One I Love both explored similar subjects to Enemy and had similar trajectory when it came to video on demand releases. If nothing else, Enemy is at least distinguished as the highest grossing of the three. The film was also released before a wave of interest in pushing Gyllenhaal for an Oscar nomination, which came that Fall with Nightcrawler, and again the following year with Southpaw. While Gyllenhaal continues to be a hard working and respected actor, and Villenueve rises in popularity, neither are necessarily recognized for the strange and small Enemy. It isn't a misfire on A24's part, but definitely serves as one of the studio's minor titles. It wouldn't even be the biggest A24 film from the first part of the year. What came next was just as alien and artful, but quickly became something more iconic and groundbreaking for an actress known for silly superhero movies. 

Up Next: Under the Skin (2014)

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