Movie doubles seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate. At last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival both “Enemy” and “The Double” grappled with what happens when you confront your doppelganger, and the idea appeared again in several films at the Sundance Film Festival.
With their enigmatic explorations of identity and persona, these recent films seem to be grappling with the human issues of the online age.
“Enemy,” opening in Los Angles on March 21 and already available on VOD, also has its own double, in a way. The film closely follows the recent release of “Prisoners,” which was also a collaboration between actor Jake Gyllenhaal and Montreal-based filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose French-language “Incendies” was nominated for the Academy Award for foreign language film in 2011.
“It’s always strange, that kind of momentum toward an idea,” said Villeneuve of the recent rash of doubles in movies. “In some ways the double is like a genre unto itself. In the novel it has been explored a lot.”
In movies, from “The Parent Trap” to “Dead Ringers” to the more recent “Moon,” the notion of the double, and confronting an unknown twin, has become a time-tested tradition as well.
In fact “Enemy” was shot before the child-abduction procedural of “Prisoners,” with Villeneuve moving straight from production on one into the other. Post-production on the two was done simultaneously, with Villeneuve racing to ready both films for Toronto. When “Enemy” had its world premiere screening, it was the first time Villeneuve himself was watching the finished print.
In “Enemy,” Gyllenhaal takes on two roles. As browbeaten history professor Adam Bell, he watches a movie on the recommendation of a colleague and notices a bit player who looks just like himself. Once he tracks down the struggling, handsome actor, Anthony Clair, it sets both men on a path in which their lives become forever intertwined, as each sees something desirable in the other. As their respective romantic partners, actresses Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon keep the film rooted in an emotional reality even as the story becomes more psychologically complex and begins to veer toward the fantastical.
“To me, I’ve always looked at it as the difference between the guy you are when you go to a dinner party and the guy you are at home,” explained Gyllenhaal of the distinction between the characters. “I always saw them as the same person, and Denis would see them as two different people.”
The film is adapted from the 2004 novel by the late Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago. The original story is set in the 1980s, though Villeneuve updates the story to present-day Toronto. “The movie is a very free adaptation. I should say the movie is inspired by the book, it’s not an adaptation,” Villeneuve said. “Saramago has a very precise and unique style. ‘Enemy’ is an adaptation of the love I had for the book.”
Working with screenwriter Javier Gullon, Villeneuve made other changes to the story as well, including the addition of a mysterious sex club and also the imagery of spiders that runs throughout the film. Though he allows that he is scared of spiders, Villeneuve declines to be any more specific about their inclusion.
“The spiders do have a precise meaning for me, but I think that in order to respect the enigma and the pleasure of the audience, I leave every viewer to find their own interpretations,” he said. “It’s a luxury I gave myself for this movie. And for the enigma to stay alive I can’t say the meaning of the spider. You have to deal with it yourself.”
The pair first met after Villeneuve reached out to Gyllenhaal for the role in “Enemy.” Villeneuve had hoped that the actor might also be interested in “Prisoners,” which was also coming together. The pairing of actor and director on the two projects has been a stronger collaboration than either expected.
“I had heard of Denis and heard of ‘Incendies,’ though I hadn’t seen ‘Incendies,’” Gyllenhaal said. “And then Denis sent the script with a note that was sort of a manifesto. The note said he couldn’t make anything else until he made ‘Enemy’ and that what I was about to read was very complex but a very simple story.”
“I think it was more about the letter than the screenplay,” Villeneuve added.
From its first moments, “Enemy” places an emphasis on atmosphere and mood as strongly as the storytelling. Villeneuve hopes the experience for audiences is similar to the one he had when he first saw something like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” where “you leave the theater excited but doubtful about what you actually understand, even as you feel strange emotions. I don’t want the audience to be frustrated, I want them to be excited by the enigma.”
“If the movie has succeeded, you should feel as you do when you wake up from a dream,” Gyllenhaal said. “There are things you don’t understand, but you know it as a feeling. And it has significance about it, you know it’s meaningful in some way.”
The doubling effects, scenes in which Gyllenhaal plays opposite himself, were done using computerized motion control technology so any camera moves could be repeated exactly. Gyllenhaal would record half of his scene, work with Villeneuve to select the best takes, switch costumes and then shoot the other side with audio playback in a small earpiece.
For Gyllenhaal the technical aspects of the production were like “playing 3-D chess.” Despite any complications, according to Villeneuve, “in truth the main special effect in ‘Enemy’ is Jake Gyllenhaal.”