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Maman: Spiders and psychosexuality in Villeneuve's 'Enemy'

Updated: Jul 25, 2019

by Kat Mildner

Adam’s real enemy is Anthony, which is to say, Adam’s real enemy is Adam himself.
Denis Villeneuve's 'Enemy' (2013)
Denis Villeneuve's 'Enemy' (2013)

Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 erotic (?) doppelgänger (?) thriller (?) Enemy begins with an epigraph: chaos is order yet undeciphered. A challenge: enter with caution. The film presents itself as a puzzle. It's haunted by a strange, dreamlike atmosphere, peppered with creepy sexual imagery and disconnected, alienated characters.

Enemy is about a man who wants to leave his mistress to return to his pregnant wife and who must confront his own worst enemy: himself. While this story is simple, its telling is not. In fact, it would be possible to watch the film and come away with a wholly different summary. The way this journey unfolds is winding and cyclical, the narrative tainted and twisted by our protagonist’s overwhelming subconscious.

The film opens with a shot of a city, Toronto, drenched in yellow fog so thick you can nearly feel it sticking to your skin. We hear a voicemail, a woman’s voice. “Hello darling, it’s your mother. Thank you for showing me your new apartment. I’m worried about you… I mean, how can you live like that? Anyway, would you call me back? Let’s get together again. I love you.”

We see the recipient, a blank Jake Gyllenhaal, sitting in a car, his face a storm not quite at breaking point. Then, a woman in bed, naked, pregnant, looking over her shoulder. It’s hard to read her exact expression, but she’s unhappy in some way. This opening sequence condenses the film and its conflicts into three images: a cityscape, a representation of the fractured mental state of a man broken up over his pregnant wife, his life on the verge of transformation. Accompanying them, his mother’s voice: her concern, her superiority, a cloud cast over his life and his film.

The Little (M)other

Enemy is about two romantic relationships defined by the man’s fear of intimacy. Jake Gyllenhaal’s dual-role as both men, Adam Bell and Anthony Claire, gives body to the almost-bored passivity of misogyny that renders women other: objects of fear and desire.

Adam is a disengaged history professor, whose life’s monotony is broken when he sees a strange face in a film: his own. He hunts down his doppelgänger, a struggling actor who still seems to be living a dream life: he has a beautiful, pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon, who appears in the opening), and a warm, bright apartment - sharply contrasted by the darkness and dankness of Adam’s own life.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that neither Gyllenhaal is happy. The city of Toronto transforms into a yellow-tinged labyrinth, the film a psychogeographic mapping of a mind split in two, both halves struggling to dance delicately around the other. Enemy often cuts to shots of the city, always shadowed in the same yellowed fog of the opening - pollution coating and clouding the characters’ minds, like their worries.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that neither Gyllenhaal is happy.

One shot in particular paints the city as this mindscape. As the separation between the two blurs, Adam/Anthony goes to visit his mother, who appears only once in the film. As the scene ends, we cut to the city again, a giant, floating spider now towering over it. This spider evokes Louise Bourgeois’ Maman (1999), both in form and in its direct association with femininity and, more specifically, motherhood.

As in much of Bourgeois’ work, images that traditionally evoke fear, sadness, and trauma are also associated with ideas of tenderness and intimacy. In dream theory, the spider often recalls a strong mother figure, but also a weaver of life - the figure of the Mother par excellence. In its association to maternity, the spider isn’t something to fear - instead, it becomes synonymous with nurturing, and with the reparative threads a mother weaves in her child’s life.

Black Widow, Baby

Louise Bourgeois’ spider stands in sharp contrast with its appropriation in Enemy. Adam/Anthony resents his mother - he ignores her calls, and his one meeting with her is marked by ambiguity and dissonance. Her dismissal of him and propensity for cruelty is linked to his issues with romantic intimacy. piders and missed phone calls lie restless in his subconscious, waiting to emerge.  

The titular enemy seems to the character to be women. As well as being connected to motherhood, spiders are associated with sexuality - specifically, the nameless, faceless arousal that Anthony/Adam feels. The scene at the sex club at the start of the film seems to play with textbook images of female objectification: women reduced to their bodies: their legs, their skin, slick. A spider, on a platter, reveals the way the men at the club see the women: served up to them, for them to chew and spit out. It is this denial of female personhood that creates the real horror at the heart of Enemy, a web of male entitlement and fear of commitment.

Though spiders are central to Enemy, the film rarely alludes to the spider’s web. Its image occurs just once in the film: at the end, when Adam and Anthony coalesce in performances of each other, taking advantage of their alikeness to swap sexual partners - a dangerous game that culminates in a deadly car crash. The car’s windscreen smashes into an image of a web, prefiguring the end of the film: Adam is trapped in his own bad habits, forever attracted to decisions that steer him away from true connection.

Tarantulas and Toxic Masculinity

The double-association of spiders with his mother and with desirable, faceless women is troubling, but doesn’t preclude another reading of Enemy’s spider motif. Jungian theory posits the dream-spider as a symbolic Shadow, the dark, unaccessible version of oneself. The film allows these multiple readings of the spider to meld together, creating a layered portrait of a man, fractured.

Adam’s real enemy is Anthony, which is to say, Adam’s real enemy is Adam himself.

Adam and Anthony, the film suggests, aren’t true doubles but, instead, two incarnations of one man’s relationship to his own masculinity. Toronto becomes the stage Adam/Anthony play out various forms of (toxic) masculinity - the only solution their environment offers to the essential unknowability of the other. If the logic of the film is followed to its furthest point, Adam is nothing but performance, nothing but a construction of Anthony, a shadow of a Shadow, shadowed by his city. Swallowed up in representations of masculinity larger than their own bodies, men in Enemy are dangerous because they risk to rip apart the threads holding together their lives, and the lives they entangle themselves in.


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