Style as Substance Example Number One: Enemy
Denis Villeneuve’s Toronto-set artsy psychological thriller, Enemy (based on Jose Saramago’s novel, The Double) is one of those rare films of exacting creeping style that elicits audible gasps from the audience. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a mild-mannered university history professor who repeatedly lectures about the dangers of losing one’s individuality under totalitarian regimes and muses over the cyclical nature of history and the rise of these totalitarian states – first viewed as tragedy, later as farce. The man oddly hates films, but he’s urged by a colleague to watch one in particular, and there he spots in a bit role as a bellhop his exact double. It’s not long before he becomes obsessed with tracking down his doppelgänger.
The first audible gasp (coupled with nervous laughter) was unique to the location where I saw the film. Enemy is boxed in by mesmerizing sepia-toned cinematography – grand scanning images of the Toronto skyline (never before used more monotonously menacing in a film). For those who have never been to Toronto, it’s a blisteringly modern landscape riddled with areas constantly under construction, giant cranes towering in the sky dangling precipitously over highway off-ramps next to skeleton frames of new office or condo highrises. Villeneuve (Canada’s premier auteur) perfectly captures this along with the city’s cold lakeside white-washed sheen (either by salt and snow in the winter, or heat in the summer – tinged deliberately yellow here by his camera). I had the luck of seeing the film while working in Mississauga, Ontario – a suburb of Toronto with its own unique skyline (highlighted by the famous Marilyn Monroe Towers, surreal condo highrises with hourglass shapes) also featured in the film. I experienced it at a Cineplex in downtown Mississauga right down the road from those lovely towers. When Jake Gyllenhaal’s character discovers the home address of his exact double to be on Rathburn Rd. West (unbeknownst to me prior to this in-film revelation, the very road upon which we sat watching the film!) the laughter and gasp from the small audience was priceless, and I suddenly felt as if I was a part of this unnerving conspiracy as I could see Jake Gyllenhaal’s double’s apartment from the parking lot of the theater!
The second gasp, one tinged with both horror and acknowledgement of the inevitable, occurs in the very last scene. Never has a cinematic dream ended more abruptly, and the sequence involves the culmination of the film’s disturbing spider motif, web-creating dictators who are either metaphorically or literally ruling over Jake Gyllenhaal and the Greater Toronto Area. Villeneuve has crafted a film that deserves mention alongside the most disturbing works of Bergman, Lynch and Haneke. It’s a frustrating, stylish, invigorating Freudian freak-piece loaded with symbolism and sex that is either a metaphor for adultery or an insular depiction of a man who doesn’t realize he’s living under a totalitarian state (where giant spiders have cast a web over his environs and soul – I’m not kidding, “Giant Spider Overlords” is one of the legitimate interpretations of the film). When the closing credits begin (showing more lovely shots of our Toronto) and The Walker Brother’s “After the Lights Go Out” plays over the images, you can’t help but laugh on the inside. Love it or loathe it, Enemy is a coldly calculated shocker-farce bound for cult status, and all I have to say to Villeneuve is bravo, monsieur.
Style as Substance Example Number Two: The Grand Budapest Hotel
There was a point in time in the past where I fantasized about throwing Wes Anderson from a train, where he would then be mauled by tigers or something like that. His unique brand of hipster kitsch had grown from charming to insufferable…but somehow the cinematic gods swung the pendulum back, and with The Grand Budapest Hotel he continues the upswing return to charming that began with The Fantastic Mister Fox. This confectionary piece…more of a snow-globe film than a cake…combines the best elements of his past two films (the aforementioned Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom) as he uses his style (miniature sets, color schemes, old-school model-driven stop-motion editing of action scenes) to bring about a sense of whimsy and melancholy and nostalgia. Whereas Villeneuve’s dark-farce Enemy could be said to have fallen into the old trope of containing a film within a film (or a dream within in a dream), Anderson’s light-farce Hotel is told as a novel within a story within a flashback within a flashback (yeah, I think). In fact, it could double as the film Jake Gyllenhaal watches in Enemy, as that too seemed to feature a hotel, high society, romance and a bellhop! Here, too, it touches on the idea of living under a totalitarian state as the middle-frame story (an old hotelier telling a reporter the history of the once grand hotel) takes place in a fantasized version of Communist Europe and the flashback meat of the story (the history of the grand hotel) takes places in a fantasized version of Europe at the onset of Nazi occupation.
The cinematography of The Grand Budapest Hotel is intoxicating, capturing with its snowy twilight tinge what it must be like drinking absinthe on a cold-winter night in some old European village while telling humorous tall tales with friends. The music, from Alexandre Desplat, echoes the feelings and is amongst the famed composer’s loveliest. But what really anchors the film (and it’s here where I give Anderson the most credit for realizing his own faults and making up for that in the casting) is the performance of Ralph Fiennes, who with theatrical aplomb, creates a larger-than-life persona as a hotelier – a special kind of man’s man. With his performance contained within Anderson’s finely tuned snow-globe universe, Fiennes manages to create a sense of nostalgia for something you never thought you would feel nostalgia for – a prewar Europe where hoteliers could make a living as man-whores servicing rich old ladies while bound to a unique moral code of brotherhood and enjoying the good life of art, food and spirits. It’s a special kind of WTF feeling, a pleasing dreamlike one (as Fiennes’ character never looses that sense of self that Gyllenhaal’s character does), and acts as a counter-offer to Villeneuve’s fevered WTF nightmare.
Style as Substance Example Number Three: 300 – Rise of an Empire
Ages ago Zack Snyder’s homo-erotic macho-fascist piece of shit, 300, arrived on the scene as a novelty act with such a unique style that it could not be ignored. It was entertaining in its own sick way at the time, but it’s virtually unwatchable now. How in the hell, then, did they manage to pull off creating a sequel (where Snyder was thankfully replaced by Noam Murro) that not only improved upon the style, but was more unabashedly entertaining? Behold, the paradox of 300: Rise of an Empire – all blustering style, yet WITH substance. That substance (much like the substance of Anderson’s Hotel came from Fiennes) oozes from Eva Green as Artemisia – who one could argue might be the greatest cinematic female villain we’ve seen in the last twenty years (or maybe even longer). Just as The Grand Budapest Hotel would’ve been nothing but a pretty snow-globe without Fiennes, 300: Rise of Empire would’ve been nothing but an ugly comic book flick without Green. And, like Enemy and The Grand Budapest Hotel, 3oo: Rise of an Empire explores (in its own juvenile grand-standing way) totalitarianism and is structured as a story within a story as channeled through myth.
The film is narrated by the good Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey – who since the first film has risen to greater fame as a certain evil queen on HBO’s Game of Thrones) and tells the tale of some Athenian general rallying against the invading Persian hordes, whose naval wing is commanded by Greek exile turned madwoman, Artemisia (Eva Green). Oddly, this thing is simultaneously a prequel, companion piece and sequel as the events unfold before, parallel to, and after the original. But none of it matters when Eva Green isn’t on-screen. She seethes, growls, preens and rules over her army (and the film) with seductive ruthlessness while using her brains, body and internal fortitude. Eva Green molds her into an iconic badass, the film’s obvious villain, who you find yourself rooting for over the dumb lugs she fights. What was macho nonsense in the first film is turned into a man’s fantasized version of girl-power and feminism in the second film – as Gorgo’s narration turns out to be a rallying cry to rise up and crush Artemisia. The warrior women of this empire rule the roost, and by the time Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” played over the deliriously bloody elegant closing credits, every hot-blooded man in the audience was screaming with joy on the inside – we were all one in that moment. This is the exact kind of “entertainment” Jake Gyllenhaal’s history professor warns us about in Enemy – a distraction and myth crafted by a totalitarian state to nullify us.
With makes me wonder…what would Gorgo and Artemisia make of the spiders in Enemy and the faux-Nazis in The Grand Budapest Hotel? My thoughts inevitably circle back to the fetishistic opening moments of Villeneuve’s Enemy that take place in a bizarre sex club, and I imagine our ladies wouldn’t think twice about crushing them under their feet.
Written by David H. Schleicher
WHOA! What an excellent piece David. This has got to be one of your best writeups (I won’t call it just a review) ever. You not only seemed to have picked up the common and parallel threads between the three films but also analyzed them at the meta-level in relation to the viewer (you), the characters, and the genre. Wow! Applause, Applause!
I specially loved your deconstruction of Enemy and 300. The former for the creepiness that you transferred to us when you mentioned you were in Canada and even saw the doppleganger’s apartment (that really gave me goosebumps). And the latter wasn’t even on my list but now I want to catch up all three, then re-read your writeup.
Prakash – it really was a piece of dumb luck…coincidence if you will…that I was where I was when I saw ENEMY. I knew it had been filmed in Toronto, and I loved being able to recognize all the location shoots…but it’s really something else to be in the theater next door to the apartment building where the main character lives! And the unveiling of the address of the character was quite a reveal moment in the film…you see it written on an envelope and as you read it and realize it’s right next door – what a shock! It was almost as if that scene was made just for the people in that particular movie theater…it was just for us…and we felt one with the film – and we, in spirit, went with Jake out of the theater and down the road to the apartment building underneath the Marilyn Monroe Towers to uncover our own dopplegangers. It’s the closest I can imagine to seeing myself in a movie – which is all the more fitting, as that is the exact type of moment that drives Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in the film. He saw himself in a movie and FREAKED. A wonderfully sublime piece of dark dark cinema this ENEMY is. Oh, man, and the spiders…WOW.
300: Rise of an Empire is beautiful trash and Eva Green (who has now played a great Bond girl and a great villain) is one of the most compelling creatures to be gracing the silver screen today. How she is not a bigger star yet is beyond me….but Christopher Nolan better jump on her quick, she would be PERFECT for his movies. I had a whole discussion with my brother after the film about what she should be cast in next and I came up with the following: she should play a female Dracula (in an otherwise straight up faithful adaptation of the novel, with only the sex change), she should play Lady MacBeth, and she should play the female lead in whatever Nolan comes up with next. Also, if Lynch ever makes another film, she should be the girl. I mean seriously…Eva Green…THIS IS THE GIRL.
It really got too personally metaphysical to handle. It was your cinematic moment as a discerning viewer. Relish it while it lasts.
As for Eva Green, I loved her the moment I saw her in her debut feature: Bertolucci’s Dreamers. She had the sinister streak way back then and I expect more outta this gal now! Let’s wait and watch.
Enemy and Budapest Hotel are high on my list to see right now. I loved Prisoners last year. How would you place Enemy with that one?
Jon – I would place Enemy a notch higher than Prisoners (which I also liked). It’s quite a different type of film though – very Lynchian whereas Prisoners was more mainstream crime thriller. Villeneuve is emerging as one of my favorite directors.
Excellent analysis intertwining the three films. I’ve only seen Budapest Hotel and agree with your view. This is Anderson’s masterpiece, and Fiennes’ most prominent role yet, well, at least for the recent decade. It’s ironic/amusing that he distinguishes himself not as a character actor, which he certainly is, but as a comic actor, which to our surprise, he is too. As for Villeneuve’s Enemy, after reading your post, I just might see it if it comes around here. I really liked Prisoners. Also, curious to see Toronto as a setting.
I’d be interested in seeing your thoughts on ENEMY as a Canadian. Though there’s nothing inherently “Canadian” about the film, it made wondrous use of the GTA. I wasn’t just an anonymous urban setting…it defined the context of the weird world Villeneuve created…the GTA was a character…and it would not have been the same film had it taken place somewhere else.
Enemy isn’t showing in my city Calgary… so much for the fourth largest urban centre in Canada. I’m afraid art films like this seldom come here. Which is why I like to attend TIFF whenever I can. As a matter of fact, I’m not too fond of Toronto as a city. I found it more concrete than jungle, with no nature close by, unlike Cowtown here.
Finally has a chance to see Enemy on DVD (Redbox rentals). What a film! I know, Saramago’s book I suppose is much deeper in exploring the meaning of the metaphor(s), and maybe a totally different story. But the film is indeed a captivating psychological thriller. Despite the seemingly ludicrous story, I think Jake G. did a great job, maybe one of his best performance. And, I think all the nakedness is distracting and unnecessary. The spider, however, is intriguing. First, it makes me think of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Second, it does lead me to wonder, Adam could be delusional, maybe all this (seeing his double) is just his imagination, or psychological construction.
I like the electrifying and creepy music. The Toronto & Mississauga establishing shots, the sepia tone you said, I only see smog. And I must say, together with the music, those cityscape just depict the foggy mind of Adam. As for the ending, I think it’s a cop-out.
Overall though, I was entranced, and I quite like it… maybe even more than The Prisoners. Villeneuve is one director to watch. And now, I must try to find Blindness based on another of Saramago’s book. I’ve got it in one of my TBR boxes but don’t think I’ll get to it any time soon.
Glad you finally saw it, Arti. I thought the ending was wonderfully abrupt – yes, maybe in some regard a cop-out, but I thought it worked very well.
As for Blindess – it’s a troubling, thought-provoking mess with some degrading sequences I felt went too far and an inherently silly premise. I would classify it as a fascinating failure (as there are many things to admire) – would be interested to read what you make of it.