Very few directors have picked up the gauntlet thrown down by David Lynch’s films such as “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive.” These are films steeped in mysteries so deep that Lynch himself is positively daring audiences to wrap their heads around them; they are the cinematic equivalent of an M.C. Escher painting — paranoid psychosis poured raw into the flask of film noir.
One director who has accepted the challenge is Quebec’s Denis Villeneuve. In his new film, “Enemy,” he plays with cloudy mental states and the idea of a doppelganger — something Lynch has worked into just about everything he’s done since the final episode of “Twin Peaks.” Villeneuve’s film also features an ominously symbolic key straight out of “Mulholland Drive,” and Lynch’s old muse Isabella Rossellini even shows up in a cameo. “Enemy” is an unsettling and enigmatic film that inspired torrents of Internet commentary seeking to “explain” the movie. Yeah, good luck with that.
The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a tweedy history professor with a dissatisfied lover (Melanie Laurent). One sleepless night he rents a movie and is baffled to find an actor in a bit role who looks almost identical to him. Curiosity gets the better of the professor, and pursuing it — he discovers his double on the Net and begins stalking him, trying to learn what he can — leads down a rabbit hole of twisted dread. The other guy is an actor (also played by Gyllenhaal) with a pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon, who’d make a perfect Hitchcock blonde), and he has some sort of sinister undercurrent in his private life. When the two finally meet, the meek professor is intimidated by his aggressive twin, who has a proposition for him — a proposition with bad results.
Villeneuve had a bigger hit with Gyllenhaal (and Hugh Jackman) in “Prisoners,” which opened here last May, and this film also has a somber, David Fincher-esque palette of sickly green, murky brown and gray, creating a parallel atmosphere to the protagonist’s mental state. Its pacing is either a bit slow or hypnotic, depending on your taste, but “Enemy” builds to a steady crescendo of madness as its impossible scenario clashes with the viewer’s desire to make sense of it. Hints are dropped throughout: offhand comments by the professor’s mother (Rossellini), or statements he makes when lecturing to his students (“Everything happens twice. … This is a pattern that repeats itself,” he says). There is, of course, the real possibility that — as in Lynch’s films — Gyllenhaal’s professor is undergoing some sort of psychological breakdown in which dreams, lies and reality all become blurred.
“Enemy” almost deserves to be knocked down a star for a stupendously baffling ending, but if you enjoy puzzles, get over that initial reaction and wade into a second viewing. It gets under your skin in a good way.