Warning: this post contains significant spoilers and I believe it shouldn’t be read if you have not yet seen Denis Villeneuve’s film Enemy (2013). If you like good movies, especially those that make you think, then you could love it and will at least find it interesting. I promise.
Now, trusting that you have watched the film and are keen to know what I thought of it, let’s continue.
Enemy was perhaps the most surprising entry in my Top 25 list a few months ago, coming in above the likes of Jacob’s Ladder and childhood favourite Jason and the Argonauts at number 21. Various other big name contenders to make my list didn’t quite make it in the end, while this recently released, sparsely distributed Canadian film somehow did. The main question I’ll now tackle is precisely why.
It’s not a question one can answer in just a few words; this is one of those movies whose qualities must be dissected from its depths, while on the surface it can (sorry, will) leave you puzzled, especially on first viewing. For that reason, I don’t simply presume others will share my affection for Enemy, particularly if you prefer your films with little more than popcorn and coke on a typical Friday or Saturday evening with friends.
To be fair, though, I think the film does have the ability to be entertaining even if you don’t initially ‘get it’. I can safely say I didn’t on first viewing, but I did enjoy it enough to know I wanted to return to it later. This is one of its strengths – being compelling even if you couldn’t grasp what the hell it all meant. Equally, for those who do like to think about what the art they consume really means, one need not look any further than this movie.
Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role that couldn’t be further from the one he played in last year’s Nightcrawler. Whereas that film’s Lou Bloom was a quick thinking, determined and ambitious man who was unmistakably sociopathic, the character Gyllenhaal plays here is a downtrodden history professor who seems generally tired with life and the relationships with those closest to him.
You get the immediate sense with this character, Adam Bell, that he is not happy with the seemingly humdrum routine of his life. His apartment appears almost bear, minimalistic, as if he does not use it for anything other than sleeping in. He lectures students about historic dictatorships – talking about how they controlled their citizens with different methods to retain power – during the day and makes casual love with his girlfriend in the evenings.
The first line of dialogue we hear in the film (aside from an ambiguous answering machine message from Adam’s mother in which she thanks him for showing her around his ‘new’ apartment, says she’s worried about him and wonders “how can you live like that?”) is during one of these lectures; “Control… It’s all about control”. Adam Bell finishes this opening address to his students by saying, “it’s important to remember this; this is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history.” Bearing this detail in mind is vital for understanding the film as a whole – the director, Villeneuve, is equipping us for what’s to come, essentially hinting at the central theme for his entire movie, so the last thing we can accuse him of is randomness.
The other central character in the narrative is a man called Anthony Claire, a bit-part actor who Adam discovers in the background of a scene in a film recommended to him by a work colleague. Gyllenhaal plays both characters, who appear identical to each other. Adam, upon discovering this apparent doppelgänger, seems to become obsessed with discovering more and sets out on a quest to track him down.
Now, while Adam and Anthony may appear physically identical, it’s important to note the differences between the two. While Adam appears dishevelled and lacks motivation (at least until he sets out trying to find this ‘twin’, a task about which he seems both excited and nervous in his mannerisms), Anthony comes across more confident, wearing more stylish clothing and generally looking after himself better than Adam does. The two are clearly not in the same mindset as it pertains to their respective lifestyles and attitude. Adam has a casual relationship with a girlfriend (played by Melanie Laurent) whom he clearly does not care much for outside of physical attraction, while Anthony is married and his wife (Sarah Gadon) is six months pregnant.
It’s intriguing that Adam does not initially notice this doppelgänger in his first viewing of the film (entitled “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way”) – it is only after he falls asleep that he then recalls the details of the scene in a dream, before abruptly waking up and going back to view it again, at which point he sees Anthony properly. From this point on we begin to see a slight change in Adam’s mannerisms; with a new task at hand to distract from a day job that he perceives as monotonous, his complexion goes from visibly depressed, to rather more energetic and focused.
The next day he goes online, having gotten Anthony’s stage name from the credits of the movie, and starts researching other movies that his new-found ‘double’ has been in. When he finds what he’s looking for, he immediately heads to the video store with some new movie titles in mind. One of those films provides a clearer close-up of Anthony’s face. Adam, needing to be sure, digs out an old ripped photo, clearly from a past relationship best forgotten (as half of the photo is missing), and finds that his face does indeed match up with the one staring back at him onscreen.
In the process of searching for Anthony, Adam discovers his phone number, having visited the former’s acting agency (and finding out that Anthony has not been there himself for six months). Adam proceeds to call his home. Anthony’s wife picks up. Thinking it is her husband she’s talking to, Helen – the wife – initially believes Anthony is playing some kind of game with her. Feeling slightly spooked, and now realising that they not only look exactly the same but also share the same voice, Adam hangs up without trying to explain.
Later that day, Adam calls back and this time Anthony answers the phone. He tells Adam to ‘never call here again’, yet is clearly intrigued by the conversation, perhaps slightly spooked himself, as afterwards we see Anthony write down Adam’s name on a piece of paper, along with the words ‘History teacher’; a piece of paper which his wife then finds in his pocket later.
This is where some hints can be found as to what’s actually going on here, though these details are easy to miss first time around. Having overheard the phone conversation, Helen begins to question her husband, not believing him when he says he was talking to ‘the same guy from earlier’ and asking “are you seeing her again?” suggesting that Anthony has struggled to stay faithful in the past. When she also asks him, “are you lying to me?” Anthony can’t answer, though we know he was in fact talking to Adam on the phone because we saw both sides of the conversation. So why then does Anthony have the look of a man lying?
Later we see Anthony doing his own internet search to check that Adam is who he said he was, but the information he manages to find is limited. The next day, he calls Adam back and says he’d like to meet, suggesting a location outside the city.
Meanwhile, that same day, Helen decides to go to the school where Adam works, to see for herself the man claiming to look and sound exactly like her husband. She appears visibly distressed upon first seeing him; despite looking and sounding like her husband, this is clearly a different man in his mannerisms. During a brief conversation between the two, she stares at him in disbelief, seeing that this man apparently does not know who she is, as he asks her, “how many months are you?” to which she replies, “six.”
Note that the length of Helen’s pregnancy correlates directly with the time passed since Anthony’s last visit to his acting agency – six months. What has her husband been doing in the meantime, if not picking up acting jobs from the agency? It’s interesting to think that we do not actually see this part of his life. The closest we get to see of Anthony’s personal life is finding out that he goes running in the late afternoons, as later that very same day he gets in from one such run, and subsequently asks his distressed wife, “where are the blueberries?” A seemingly insignificant detail but one that is repeated in a revealing scene with Adam’s mother later on.
That’s one of this film’s finest attributes – no line of dialogue is wasted. Paying attention to every detail in every scene is vital for grasping what the movie is trying to communicate. For as much as we might praise someone like Tarantino for his inclusion of dialogue that doesn’t necessarily advance plot, instead making his characters feel more natural and organic, there is also something admirable about a film in which every line of dialogue, it seems, is carefully crafted and expertly timed for a certain reason, and you lose track of it at your peril.
It’s in the dialogue, along with the general mood and atmosphere of the film (which is shot through a yellowish hue that seems to drain the environment of other colours, creating a somewhat lucid and dream-like effect), that we see the more obvious differences between Villeneuve’s movie and the novel on which it’s based: The Double, by Jose Saramago. In a way, Enemy isn’t really an adaptation at all; more a re-imagining, taking the basis of Saramago’s idea (that being: a man discovers his double and sets out to track him down while in the midst of an identity crisis) and re-interpretating its overall meaning for the characters involved. However, to understand this fully one also needs to understand the story Villeneuve is truly communicating in his film.
So eventually, we get to the meeting between Gyllenhaal’s two personas; the actor (Anthony) and the History teacher (Adam). They meet in a hotel outside the city, presumably to avoid being seen together by anyone else – though at this point it is worth remembering the imagery of the inner city ‘web’ we have seen forming in brief, ambiguous cuts throughout the film so far. The spider and intricate web imagery is something I’ll return to towards the end, but in a sense we’ve already been given the answer near the beginning; “…it’s all about control”.
Their meeting is appropriate for the mid-way point of the film, as it is here that we see a slight change in the two characters. Adam, initially the seeker in this situation, appears nervous and apprehensive as he reaches their meeting place first and awaits Anthony’s arrival. As Anthony opens the door and Adam sees him in person for the first time, he says “I told you” with a sense of relief as it appears he has been proven correct. However, Adam has clearly not considered what he should do next, or how this meeting would proceed, and Anthony quickly becomes the more curious one. For Adam, it seems merely confirming Anthony’s existence, so he could know for sure, was his sole intention up to this point. He has given little thought to the subsequent consequences.
Anthony approaches him, asking him to hold out his hands, and Adam suddenly starts to lose whatever motivation he originally had to come to this meeting and find out more about this man. When Anthony asks if Adam has the same scar that he does on his chest, lifting up his shirt to show it, Adam backs away, saying ‘this was a mistake’. He retreats from the hotel room, leaving behind an envelope addressed to Anthony which he had previously picked up at the acting agency on his behalf and used to find his address. The contents of this envelope, and the fact that it was left for Anthony at the agency rather than sent directly to his home address, is a telling detail that will become important at the end of the film.
There are two main things to note from this scene. First, as I’ve said, it sees a change in the characters – a role reversal in a sense, as Anthony becomes more curious and from this point on will become the seeker, while Adam now seems to want nothing more to do with his supposed doppelgänger. The second thing to note is precisely how this change takes place. There is an overriding sense during this scene that Adam experiences some kind of revelation, though he does not voice it. When Anthony suggests, “maybe we’re brothers”, Adam swiftly replies that they’re not. His voice catches as he says it, but we sense it is not because he is lying. There is something else, something deeper, perhaps as simple as the thought occurring that ‘if we’re not brothers… what exactly are we?’
Adam leaves. Driving back to the city in his car, we see Anthony overtaking him on the motorway, on his motorcycle. He glances in at Adam on the way past.
On what we can presume is the following day, we then see Anthony watching Adam as the latter leaves his apartment for work. Adam’s girlfriend accompanies him to the car, before setting off for work herself. She walks toward the bus – and as she does so, Anthony follows her on his motorcycle, before parking up nearby and getting on the same bus. It becomes clear that Anthony, despite being married, is quite taken with her, as he observes her from behind and the camera pans down to her ankles. We see a look of lustful temptation on his face, along with a hint of knowing opportunity… at this point we can already guess what Anthony might be planning: to take Adam’s place and sleep with his girlfriend, with lust being his primary motivation behind the deception. This is not out of character for him, as one may recall the questioning by Anthony’s wife after the phone call with Adam earlier in the film – we already know he has been unfaithful in the past and are now seeing firsthand just how easily tempted he is.
Interestingly, the very next shot we see is of Anthony sitting at home, his wife asleep on the couch beside him, appearing to be in deep thought. If one didn’t know better, it would seem that the entire scene we have just witnessed – of Anthony going to Adam’s apartment and stalking his girlfriend to work – has been taking place in Anthony’s mind.
There is another revealing question we should be asking ourselves, though it is one you can easily miss: how exactly did Anthony know where Adam lived? The school directory he looked up online does not give out the personal addresses of its teachers, and the only logical assumption one can make is that Anthony followed him home the previous day – but we already know that Anthony overtook Adam on his motorcycle that day, before speeding on ahead, which would seem to rule out that possibility.
In the following scene, Adam visits his mother, and they have one of the most revealing conversations of the film. Adam has clearly went to her with his concerns about recent events, telling her the story of meeting Anthony and what has recently been happening to him. His mother (played by popular Italian actress Isabella Rossellini) brushes off his claims and says “the last thing you need is to be meeting strange men in hotel rooms… you have enough trouble sticking with one woman don’t you?” suggesting that Adam has also struggled to remain faithful in past relationships. She offers Adam some blueberries, but he says he does not like them – to which she replies, “of course you do”.
His mother then says arguably the most revealing line of dialogue we’ve heard so far: “You have a nice apartment, a respectable job, and personally I think you should quit that fantasy of being a second rate movie actor”. By this point you may have worked out what’s really going on here, but I will continue on with my analysis of the final few scenes before giving my reading of the characters and their story, as there are still further small revelations to come.
Following this scene, we see Anthony practising a routine in the mirror, asking himself, “did you sleep with my wife?” as he tries to appear convincing. Thinking himself a good actor (one could say ‘thinking himself better than he actually is’), he prepares to confront Adam with this accusation. We can easily conclude that he is doing so because he plans to use the excuse of ‘revenge’ when he then sleeps with Adam’s girlfriend in return.
Turning up at Adam’s apartment door, Anthony begins his act, though the former’s reaction is not as expected. When asked “did you sleep with my wife?” Adam does not answer directly, hinting that perhaps he is not so sure himself whether he has anything to feel guilty or sorry about. Anthony explains that because Adam brought his wife into the situation when he first called his house, they are now going to switch clothes and he will take Adam’s girlfriend away for the night, posing as Adam, and then “you’ll never see me again”.
After making the switch, Anthony, now looking uncannily like Adam with his scruffy outfit and having also removed his wedding ring, leaves the apartment. Adam is left sitting in deep contemplation, but there’s an undeniable sense of some weight having been lifted off him.
Gradually, he begins to put on the clothes Anthony left behind, and leaves his apartment. We see him apprehensively make the journey back to Anthony’s place, where he is let in to his ‘new’ home by a neighbour after claiming that he forgot his keys.
Upon arrival, we see Adam attempting to adjust to his surroundings as he awkwardly tries to fit in to the life Anthony had been living. He cringes slightly when he opens the refrigerator to find the packets of blueberries that Anthony usually consumes after one of his daily afternoon runs. We get another subtle reveal in the form of a photograph; Adam sees a photo taken of Anthony and Helen – it is clearly the same ripped photo Adam dug out in his old apartment earlier in the film, only in that version, Helen had been cut out of it.
When Helen returns home, Adam appears to keep up the illusion of being her husband. Or is it really an illusion any longer? Was it ever one? Ultimately, my conclusion is that the only person under an illusion was Adam himself, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Eventually, after awkwardly asking Helen if she needs anything and once again drawing attention to the fact that she’s six months pregnant, Adam proceeds to get into bed with her. Helen seems to have some idea that this man is not the husband she knew before – but her reaction is one of silent longing for this new version of him, rather than shock or disgust. Another question mark is raised when she asks him a seemingly routine question; “did you have a good day at school?” Adam appears taken aback and cannot answer. She tells him to “forget it”. I think Sarah Gadon deserves great credit for her understated performance in this role.
This scene is interspersed with the corresponding events taking place in a motel between Anthony and Adam’s girlfriend that night. Anthony is successful in enticing her to have sex with him, but while they are in the act of doing so, she notices a mark on his finger, left by the wedding ring he had removed beforehand. Knowing her boyfriend did not have this mark, she understandably freaks out (possibly the most normal reaction of all the characters thus far) and demands that Anthony take her home without waiting to hear an explanation.
On the drive home, the two get into an argument which intensifies when Adam’s girlfriend claims that Anthony is “not a real man”. “Oh, I’m not a man?!” Anthony retorts, his pride hurt, as he is experiencing something not typical of his usual success with women, and he tries to open the door of the car in order to throw her out. Taking his eyes off the road, they veer off into a wall and the car, travelling at high speed, flips multiple times, presumably killing them both. The camera zooms in on the shattered windscreen – revealing what appears to be a spider’s web on the cracked surface, caused during the crash.
Meanwhile, Adam has trouble sleeping. He gets out of bed and moves to the couch, where he begins to cry. The way these scenes are edited together, cutting between each other, seem to suggest that he can sense what is concurrently happening between Anthony and his girlfriend. As the other scene approaches the crash, it becomes strangely quieter despite the increased intensity of the argument between those two characters, almost as if they are starting to fade. Eventually, Helen comes to join Adam on the couch; when she wonders why he’s crying, he can only say “I’m sorry”. She then tells him that she “wants him to stay”, before they make love.
We then arrive at the final scene of the film, and I think it’s necessary before getting to it that I first give my conclusions to this story as a whole. I hope my detailed description of each scene so far means that it is now less of a surprise to make the claim that Adam and Anthony are, in fact, the same person. Throughout the film we receive numerous hints toward this – the fact that Anthony knew where Adam had been living, that Helen already knew the school at which Adam worked (because Adam was, in fact, her husband – a teacher and failed actor), the revealing conversation with Adam’s mother in which she makes comments that could apply to either character, the identical photo (one torn and one of a happily married couple) owned by both Adam and Anthony; to name a few examples.
Nonetheless this still leaves certain questions, and indeed this revelation is actually the most obvious of the film’s secrets. What about the significance of spiders and the web? Or the talk of dictatorships and control? Is Gyllenhaal’s character simply suffering from a form of mental illness, torn between two different personalities?
The answer to that last question is not a simple one, for even if it seems that is the case, we must then ask what caused it, and I believe the film tells us that exact thing. We know from the conversation with Adam’s mother at the very least, that he does not have a history of such behaviour, because if he had, she surely would have thought this a likely cause for the apparent doppelgänger her son tells her about.
To sum up the premise in rather simple terms; Adam/ Anthony is a man who feels controlled by his wife’s pregnancy – and to a lesser extent marriage, which inhibits his ability to sleep with other women. The pressure of this situation, combined with his natural tendency to avoid commitment to anything whether it be a woman or career or even lifestyle, results in his mind splitting between two personas who react to it in different ways. One (Adam) appears dragged down, resigned to the monotonous pattern of life and using sex with his girlfriend/ mistress as a way of distracting himself from it. The other (Anthony) appears more rebellious and is far from resigned to what awaits him, staying with his wife but seeming intent on avoiding the reality of her pregnancy the same way he avoids her questioning about the phone call.
Anthony has appeared in movies, but knowing the parts that he has played (small background roles), it’s safe to say he hasn’t been lighting the world on fire and this career path has perhaps not worked out the way he would have been hoping. Considering it has been six months since he last visited his acting agency, it’s also safe to assume there was either not much work coming in for him, or he had been forced to give up on it by that point – which coincided with the beginning of his wife’s pregnancy.
Adam, meanwhile, has a seemingly secure (described as ‘respectable’ by his mother), if significantly less exciting job as a History teacher. This is a career more likely to help him provide for a growing family, but lacks the glamour of acting in movies. From Adam’s complexion at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that he has lost his passion for the job, if it was ever truly there in the first place. We see two separate shots of consecutive lectures to students on the same topic – dictatorships and repeating patterns throughout history. The second shows Adam struggling to maintain his enthusiasm shown in the first. He himself has become part of a repeating pattern in this sense, under the perceived dictatorship of his future family, for whom he needs to provide having been forced to give up his own pursuits (his ‘freedom’) in life.
We can assume it was somewhere along the line of this process, between letting go of what his mother calls his ‘fantasy’ of being a movie actor and instead focusing on his career as a history teacher, that the split happened. Part of him refused to give up on this fantasy, while the other became depressingly resigned to the dullness of reality. Even sex with his girlfriend does not appear to give Adam any kind of fulfilment – showing that he somehow knows it is only a distraction from something else.
Interestingly, it is when Adam encounters a different kind of distraction – a movie – from this pattern of sex, that he then comes across himself (or Anthony) for the first time. From there, Adam’s mind begins trying to reconcile the two parts of himself, in the process seeking out the thing (his wife and her pregnancy) he had been distracted from. We know it is something in his mind that does this, as Adam does not notice himself in the film initially; it is only when he is jolted from his sleep, having seen the scene repeated in a dream, that he goes back to focus more closely on it. Subconsciously, his mind has begun the reconciliation process, though it ultimately requires conflict between the two personas so that one of them can be taken out of the situation, as Adam’s mind becomes one again.
So where does everything else fit into this equation around Adam/ Anthony, in particular his wife Helen? She clearly loves her husband, having chosen to stay with him despite past experience of him having had an affair (explained by the question, “are you seeing her again?” when she is asking him about the phone call) and lingering doubts that he can stay faithful now. From Sarah Gadon’s portrayal, we see that Helen does not entirely trust her husband, perhaps due to Anthony’s apparent unwillingness to fully accept that she is six months pregnant and therefore requires more attention from him than he is giving.
Helen’s reaction when she encounters Adam in person, at the school, is interesting. Her shock at first is understandable – as anyone would be if they saw the supposed double of their husband, him not recognising her. The clever way in which this scene is shot (with Helen holding the piece of paper on which Anthony had written Adam’s name along with the words ‘History teacher’), as with much of the movie, does not clearly reveal Helen’s thoughts on the situation – she could be in one of two mindsets. We assume at first that Helen is merely shocked that her husband was right about having a double.
But the other, rather obvious (in hindsight) possibility is that Helen knows this is her husband, and knew the school at which to find him because it is where her husband works. Her shock is due to his change of complexion and of course, the fact that he does not seem to recognise her, even asking “how many months are you?” in reference to her pregnancy. There is one subtle clue hinting at this conclusion in the scene, in a certain look she gives Adam; a look of disbelief that says “you really don’t recognise me…?” just after he asks the question regarding her pregnancy.
Later on that same day, she mentions this to Anthony, realising again that he has no recollection of her coming to visit him – yet she still does not seem sure that her husband is being completely honest about this, telling him “I think you know” after asking him what is happening. Helen is clearly distressed at her husband’s psychological state, but is not yet sure whether part of it is just an act on her husband’s behalf. Anthony himself does not give the impression of being entirely sure, and we are constantly uneasy about how much he really knows about the situation.
These suspicions are exasperated by what we saw in the opening ‘prologue’ scene of the film; Anthony in what appears to be a sex club, where he watches through his fingers (as his hands cover his face) a woman crush a spider with her heel. With the frequent hints that Anthony knows more than he may be letting on, we are led to believe that this prologue scene is directly linked to the situation between Adam, Anthony and his wife, perhaps taking place just before his mind had split in two.
However, we are never given a resolution to this prologue scene – Anthony’s death towards the end means he doesn’t revisit the sex club nor does he receive the key for it that was waiting in the envelope handed over by Adam (which he had received at the agency) earlier in the film. The key is instead ‘passed on’ to Adam when he then re-discovers it in what was Anthony’s jacket in the film’s final scene.
This final scene shows Adam turn off a radio as it reports on the car crash from the previous night, perhaps signalling that he has finally cut Anthony, along with his mistress, out of his life and is ready to move on. Helen shouts from the bathroom that his mother called. He appears more relaxed in his surroundings, settling in to being a husband and expectant father. That’s at least until he finds, in his pocket, the envelope he had previously given to Anthony when they first met in the motel. A strange light enters his eyes as he looks at the key. He asks Helen, who has moved to the bedroom; “are we doing anything tonight?” before adding “…because I think I need to go out”.
She doesn’t answer. Adam calls her again, before approaching the room to check on her. As the camera follows him at shoulder level into the room, we see (to our shock) a giant spider in the space where Helen was. When it sees Adam, it cowers in fear of him. His reaction is not shock, or even the slightest surprise; he merely registers the sight for a moment, before sighing in resignation. The film abruptly ends on this note, leaving the audience somewhat disorientated. If you thought you had the film worked out up to this point, the final shot is likely to throw you off once again.
Now, I must admit the spider, for me, in this case represents something of a red herring. This isn’t a monster movie by any means. Make no mistake: it’s still a film about a man struggling with infidelity, and finding his way back to his wife as he learns to deal with commitment. The spider is not there to make you suddenly revaluate everything you’ve seen up to that point, as can often be the case with such shocking endings in other movies. Rather it is there to help communicate a subconscious sub-plot regarding control – to add an extra layer to the story. Remember the film itself gave us this hint at the beginning, with Adam’s own statement: “control… it’s all about control”.
In this film, the main thing Adam feels controlled by, the thing that drove him to the breakdown he seems to be in the midst of, is women – whether that be his mother, who doesn’t support his ‘fantasy’ of acting in movies, or his pregnant wife, who wants him to stop messing around with other women and commit himself to her. This is, in a sense, the ‘web’ in which Adam finds himself. Once you are caught in it, it is not so easy to escape from. Subconsciously, Adam’s mind has tried to escape it by splitting in two, but even that is not ultimately successful, as we see him eventually arrive back home, ready to continue living his role as the husband his wife desires at the end of the movie.
But the story does not end there. It does not leave us with a simple resolution any more than it sits us down to overtly explain the meaning of its symbolism and metaphor in the way that I have attempted to do here. Instead, we witness the whole process starting again. Adam finds the key which will lead him to the sex club we saw in the prologue. He has missed a call from his mother – and the first lines of dialogue we heard in the film was an answering machine message from her.
Adam may have purged himself of Anthony by the end of the movie, but those character traits are still a part of him. Though he has come back home to his wife, he remains susceptible to temptation. Recall Adam’s concluding line in his opening address to his students; “It’s important to remember this… this is a process that repeats itself, throughout history.”
This is also the film’s conclusion. The process will repeat itself, as it has done throughout history; men feeling controlled and inhibited by marriage and family, while feeling tempted by other women, often resulting in infidelity and the subsequent break-up of the family unit.
In Enemy, Helen isn’t willing to let her marriage be broken up; she has forgiven her husband for his past infidelity and when his psychological state becomes apparent to her, she is willing to be patient and let him work out his issues so he can eventually be the man she longs for him to be. Adam is, in a sense, caught up in her web throughout; he senses it even when he is distracting himself with school work and sex with his mistress in the first third of the film. This web prevents him fully breaking away from his marriage and impending child, eventually leading him back to its centre.
Yet it cannot change who he is. This remains the part of him that it cannot control; it can only distract him from it for as long as his focus is kept elsewhere – similar to the dictatorships Adam talks about, which used entertainment or other methods to distract their citizens and maintain control over them.
When Adam finds the key again, he momentarily remembers that he still has a choice. And he decides that once again he is going to escape from what he sees as his wife’s control by going behind her back, returning to his habitual instincts. This is why the spider – a metaphorical representation of his wife – then reacts in fear, knowing its control has been broken… but, like before, the process will continue, and though Adam can distract himself from it, he won’t be able to fully escape the web of control in which he has become trapped at this stage of his life. For the first time, he faces this realisation head on. Hence, his resignation and acknowledgment, in the final shot of the film, that ultimately he cannot escape the reality of his situation.
Though Villeneuve has openly admitted in interviews about Enemy that it is about infidelity and a man coming back home to his wife after a crisis, he has intentionally been less clear about the symbolism of the spider imagery, so this element of the film is somewhat more open to interpretation. We can at least be sure that there is not literally giant spiders roaming the streets of Toronto, though, as it would be a very different kind of film if that was the case. I would hope that my reading of this aspect of the movie makes some sense, even should someone else have a different view. In addition I think the spider presence and its meaning could probably be read into even further and in more depth than I have done here.
My intention was only to talk about a film I very much enjoyed, and one I think others should make a point of seeking out and enjoying, as it’s probably one that most people missed first time around during its limited theatrical run. It really was one of the best films I saw during the whole of last year – and certainly one of the few that felt like a genuinely special, refreshing cinematic experience.