It’s an old, old story but what works on the page does not necessarily translate to the screen. The latest illustration is Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy.” The French-Canadian director (“Incendies”) uses every cinematic trick he can think of, but a psycho-sexual story coming from a novel will not yield to the movie.
The story is based on a 2004 novel by Nobel Prize laureate José Saramago called “The Double.” In it a man comes face to face with himself — or at least a man who is his double in every way — which sends both into a chaotic and surreal game to be played to the death.
In a novel, where the reader is free to imagine these events, this no doubt could be a gripping tale. (No, I haven’t read the novel.) On screen, where Jake Gyllenhaal confronts Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s … well, silly. Really silly.
These two, Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve, worked well together last year with the tense and hypnotic “Prisoners.” But this film, actually shot earlier, never finds its footing.
This puzzling new addition to the doppleganger genre takes place in a Toronto shot by Nicolas Bolduc to look grimy and smoggier than Los Angeles. Camera angles, earth colors and a heavy-handed score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans obsessively try to build tension where none exists in the story itself.
An alienated and unhappy university history professor, Adam (Gyllenhaal #1), who brings gloom into his increasingly chilly relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent), is startled to discover he looks exactly like a minor actor, Anthony St. Claire (Gyllenhaal #2), whom he spots in a rented DVD movie.
Now this would provoke curiosity in anyone. But an existential crisis? Well, in this film, that’s what happens as the two men, distraught prof and bit player, essentially stalk one another. They bring into this dangerous game their women as well, Mary, of course, and Anthony’s pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon).
The men finally meet and it’s worse than they imagined — they are identical right down to a scar that, logically, they cannot both share. Hmmm, okay, so none of this is real on the surface. You’ve left the arena of thriller into perhaps the realm of metaphysics or science fiction?
Well, maybe, but if so what does any of this have to do with a strange opening sequence in which one of the two men — it turns out to be the actor — enters a private underground men’s sex club right out of Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” — only much seedier and repellent?
All this is less a head-scratcher than a bun-wiggler, meaning you’re itching to get up and leave the theater. While images and music work overtime to convince you that this is a man in crisis, the literalness of the images and overwrought nature of the acting are turn-offs.
The final image — which circles back to that men’s club — is so ludicrous as to shut down any aprés-cinema curiosity.
If anything the movie is oppressive, pounding portentously at a viewer without any sense of humor or lightness — with the exception of a token appearance by Isabella Rossellini as Adam’s mother. Gloom hangs over everything.
“Enemy” has met the enemy — and it’s the story itself.
Opens: March 14, 2014 New York, March 21 L.A. (A24)
A Pathé, Entertainment One presentation of a Rhombus Media, Roxbury Pictures production in association with Mecanismo Films, micro_scope
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Isabella Rossellini, Sarah Gadon
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Javier Gullon
Based on a novel by: José Saramago
Producers: M.A. Faura, Niv Fichman
Executive producers: Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Mark Slone
Director of photography: Nicolas Bolduc
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Costumes: Renee April
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Editor: Matthew Hannam
No rating, 90 minutes