Interview: Denis Villeneuve
Sneak-previewing as part of the closing night of Film Comment Selects, Denis Villeneuve’s new film Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a man confronted by existential conundrums and deep-seated inner-fears when he discovers his doppelgänger. Gyllenhaal plays both roles: Adam, a bored and constantly perturbed history professor, and Anthony, a tense and cocksure bit-part actor who catches the academic’s eye on screen due to his alarming resemblance to him. Adapted from José Saramago’s novel The Double, this psychosexual thriller co-stars Mélanie Laurent as Adam’s girlfriend, Isabelle Rossellini as his mother, and Sarah Gadon as Anthony’s wife. FILM COMMENT spoke with Villeneuve (whose last film was Prisoners, also with Gyllenhaal) to get under the skin of the doubled character.
Your second feature, Maelstrom, a dark comedy from 2000 about guilt and bodily alienation, meant a lot to me at the time, and still does. It feels more similar to Enemy than any of your other films.
You’re totally right. There’s a symmetry [to them]. They are brothers in some ways. I thought of them together when I was writing and shooting Enemy. My challenge was not to fall into the same traps. [Laughs] But I knew I was in the same area. I think that I needed to go back there because after Polytechnique and Incendies, both of which were more realistic and word-oriented and about cycles of violence, I felt that I had to go back to something more intimate, something more personal. I think Enemy’s my most personal movie.
What is it that makes the film so personal for you?
It’s a fear of failure, of a threat, the threat of not being able to evolve as a human being. The threat of the power of the subconscious, why it’s so powerful and how it tells us to get rid of certain pieces inside ourselves. Whenever I have to make a decision that’s connected to a feeling inside myself, I’m always afraid of not being in control. I question a lot whether we’re really in control of ourselves. This film is, for me, an exploration of a worry.
One of the things that also connects Maelstrom and Enemy is that they both key into this anxiety, this generalized unease that seems so central to contemporary life.
This is true, what you’re saying. Nowadays there is that feeling. The other thing is—not having been there in the Sixties, I can’t say what it was like—but at that time they were dealing with the stress of nuclear bombs. There are always different kinds of anxieties throughout history. But right now there’s something more definite about it. There’s a possibility, a real possibility, that we are facing a wall. This is something that I see in children, how they look at the future in a very bleak way. And we have always, in the past, relied on technology to save us, and there comes a time when it’s very oppressive. It’s an anxiety that is here on a daily basis.
The use of color in Enemy is very striking. The images have an overall yellow-and-green-ish tint, but you also break from that uniformity with a subtle use of blue and red—Helen’s cellphone has that amazing red glow, and there’s that deep blue light coming from Adam’s computer. Something about that scene, when Adam is woken up by the computer, feels quite familiar to me. This glowing electronic device in a dark room whose presence won’t allow you to rest, and which seems part of another world.
It’s very interesting what you’re saying. The colors, first of all, are based on what I had in mind as I was reading the book. The book is set in a metropolis that feels like its somewhere in the south, and there was a description of this yellow-ish atmosphere. We added the smog, which came from the idea of pressure—the paranoid feeling and the pressure of the city and the density of the population. It felt like there was this yellow color coming from my mind, coming from pollution. It’s something that we wanted to add with VFX, but as we were shooting in Toronto in the summer there was so much pollution that we didn’t have to add anything. It was like a natural apocalyptic landscape. We did work with specific filters in order to create that feeling.
The idea was to shoot the city as it is but bring in the atmosphere of the book, the pressure that was inside the book. In the book, there are no computers. It’s set in the Eighties. But I felt it was more relevant to bring in the technology of today because of its relationship to narcissism, which is very present with the Internet today, the way people are using the Internet as a mirror. It’s something that I felt was interesting to incorporate in the screenplay.
Given the film’s subject matter, the color palette reminded me of amniotic fluid, or like looking at a medical specimen inside a jar of formaldehyde.
Yes, I know what you mean.
If I’m not mistaken, the image of the spider hovering over the city is a reference to the Louise Bourgeois sculpture, which is, appropriately enough, called Maman.
It’s just that for months I was thinking about spiders and I brought this idea to the screenplay because it was, for me, the perfect image that would translate some ideas from the book. Something that wasn’t overused. I needed this one image, and I said: “I have to find the right one.” When I thought about the spider, there was something specific I was looking for, the feeling from this beast, and that main thing was intelligence. I wanted to see that the spider was a beast that has the characteristic of a strong intelligence, and elegance. The best example that I found was this Louise Bourgeois sculpture. We tried tons of different designs, but it always came back to this one. So, yes, it’s inspired by Louise Bourgeois.
One of the things that comes to mind in using that sculpture as the basis for your imagery is that Adam’s mother is an artist herself, and the spider hovering over the city appears right after the only scene with her. I was wondering if you could talk about this way of constructing the movie, the various elements at play and their complex relationships.
It’s something that we worked a long time on. We had to make it more dynamic at one point, but this idea of the spider and the mother was a link that was a bit more obvious in the screenplay which we had to remove. Because I think it was too obvious. The way we approached this movie was very pretentious [laughs] because we were trying to do it on a concrete level and on the subconscious level at the same time. So it affects the audience on both levels.
I think that an audience can understand concepts or ideas that are poetic and strange from an emotional point of view but from an intellectual point of view it would be trying for the audience to have to process. And it’s something that I love about a lot of filmmakers, like Kubrick. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers because he’s one of the masters of this. As a filmmaker it’s my dream to be able to try to create those connections between the two levels. In some ways, I think all movies are trying to do that.
There’s this notion of subterranean ideas in your work. For instance, Polytechnique is about someone who possesses a warped ideology, these awful ideas that lead him to these violent actions, but we only see the violent actions. That kind of stuffing intellectual content underneath a movie, if you will—not making it the explicit focus—is something you keep returning to. Is that something you’re trying for?
Yes… To be honest, I’m aware [of this]. When I finished Polytechnique, I decided to take a break because I realized that I was not able to continue the kind of cinema that I was trying to make. I felt like—not a failure, but I was not ready to make another movie right away because I needed to explore more screenwriting to understand how to bring ideas through subtext, to underline things, that stuff, more precisely, without talking about them. Do you understand what I mean? I’m trying to express in my own words what you just said. [Laughs]
Enemy is really a movie entirely about discomfort, and even though it’s this fantastic premise, it’s presented in such a way that it can be related to daily life. The way that Gyllenhaal comports himself, and the way you’re able to compare the two versions of his character, it becomes this miniature epic of discomfort—feeling like an imposter in your own life, for reasons that both are absurd and make sense. It’s also about the way that body language speaks to who you are.
In a way, they are two souls that have the same body, but they don’t need it in the same ways. I was able to know which character Jake was playing just by the way he was moving his shoulder or the way his eyes would relax playing one versus the discomfort of the other one. How you see the world has an impact on the way you inhabit your body. It was something that Jake was able to portray very subtly. In fact, my job very often was to try to bring the two characters closer together, to not make them too different. I wanted the characters to be, in some ways, very far away from one another but also have very subtle similarities, and my work was to focus on those aspects.
Adam Bell behaves more like Anthony Clair when he gets excited and also when he’s having sex.
Yeah, there’s something about their sexuality—it’s a movie about discomfort with intimacy. Both characters are linked by their sexuality.
For me, the movie was about infidelity, the disastrous effects of infidelity, fear of intimacy, also a fear of the opposite gender, and the way this can damage relationships and how one can become obsessed with these things much to the detriment of everything else in life.
When somebody asked me recently to explain the movie I said: “You know what, this movie is a very simple story, it’s a man who decides to leave his mistress and go back to his wife, and we see this story from his subconscious point of view.” This is the way I read the book, and this is what I tried to do in making the movie. It’s the simplest story but told in a very complex way.
The first three shots of the film even suggest this idea. You have the panning shot across the city with his mother’s voice leaving him a message on his answering machine; then a shot of Gyllenhaal sitting in his car; and then a shot of his wife on their bed looking back toward the camera. And I got the sense that these three—the mother, himself, and the mother-to-be, his wife—are the three elements that cause him to fracture. Then at the end, as soon as Adam and his wife begin to have sex on the couch, they finally embrace each other again, that’s when Adam’s girlfriend and Anthony Clair have the car crash.
I love it because I feel that you really get all the keys and it’s very exciting for me. A lot of people are disoriented and they are like, “What the fuck is that,” and are lost when they see the movie. I think it’s a movie that is very playful, and unfortunately you have to see it more than one time to get all the elements.
The movie deals with aspects of the relationship a person has to their own individuality, in a way that feels unique to me. Hitchcock has come up a number of times in discussions of the film, and of all the Hitchcockian elements, the one that feels most profound is that the character’s fears appear absurd and at the same turn out to be well-placed.
It’s true that this project, in the beginning, was influenced by Hitchcock and a little by Polanski. When you make a movie in the 21st century, you are always being influenced by tons of masters. This one is really an exploration of suspense, and for me it was like a neurotic spy movie. And in order to do that, it was a pleasure to revisit some of Hitchcock’s movies, but I do that with a lot of humility, trying to be playful. So many masterpieces have been made in the past, so that today when you make a movie I think you have to be humble.
I think that comes across. For instance, it’s such a tight movie; it’s less than 90 minutes. That’s another thing I reacted to: as much as it has the tone of a thriller, to the point of being a horror movie, there’s something low-key about it, extraordinary but everyday. Which makes it relatable.
I understand. That was the kind of tension that I was trying to create between the fantastique elements and everyday life, so that you would feel the pressure of the horror of someone meeting himself for real. There was something about trying to explore the fantastique elements and put them in reality. The movie’s very stylized but at the same time we tried to keep the feeling of reality always there so that the tension would be stronger.