Theories on Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy

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Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 film Enemy is full of Jake Gylenhaals and giant spiders. Join us as we examine some of the theories surrounding the mysteries of this thought-provoking film. 

You ever watch one of those movies which ends in a way that is so unexpected it catches you off guard? Almost right away you want to watch it over again so as to try and figure out what happened. Enemy is one of those films. It is confusing in the way it does not tell you things, especially at the very end. It is one of those films which every person who has seen the film seemingly has their own unique explanation of the plot, and the filmmaker won’t acknowledge or deny any of them. 

In other words, Enemy is not necessarily an easy film to understand. Even though it is not exactly complex, it is very thought-provoking. At the center of this intrigue is a plot revolving around two characters who have the same exact appearance. Adam Bell is a history teacher who watches a film and sees an actor (named Anthony) who looks exactly like him. He becomes obsessed about this doppelganger, eventually tracking him down. When they do meet, they find each other to be exactly the same, down to a scar on their ribs. The film goes on to explore the impact of this discovery on the both of them. 

When most films feature two characters who are strikingly similar in appearance, there is usually also an explanation of why. Enemy offers no explanation. It is up to the audience to decide whether or not these two characters are the same person, used to be the same person, or are two different people. Enemy is also a film with random spiders. They show up in key scenes, and no one is really sure if they are real or not. 

This is a look at some of the theories surrounding both the doppelgangers and spiders in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy.  (WARNING – THIS ARTICLE DOES HAVE SPOILERS)

Theory: Adam and Andrew are the Same Person 

If Fight Club taught us one thing, it is that two movie characters can actually be the same person. Applying this type of thinking to Enemy, it could work. Adam and Andrew are physically identical, and yet they behave in very different ways. YOu could even say Adam acts in a way that is the opposite of how Andrew acts. They clearly have two different personalities. Perhaps those personalities share the same body. 

There is a lot of proof for this theory. For example, Adam and Andrew are only shown together when they are alone. No other character witnesses them together. Other characters do eventually realize they are different from each other, but these realizations come only when the significant other recognizes their Adam/Anthony acting in an atypical fashion. I suppose it is possible for a person with split personalities to have kept their condition from their partner. With such logic, I would also accept an intimate partner being able to recognize when their significant other is not behaving normally. 

Andrew is married with a child on the way, but is dissatisfied and wants to have an affair. He is the more adventurous one, which is reflected in his job as a part-time actor. Adam does not have a wife, but he has a girlfriend. Adam also has a stable, but boring job as a college professor. Each “personality” seems to want what the other one has. Andrew wants a more exciting relationship, and a fulfilling career. Adam wants a more fulfilling relationship, and a more exciting career. The film is each personality trying to get what they want, and being unable to do so. The only way forward is one of them has to end. 

If Andrew and Adam are the same person, Andrew represents a person unhappy with his life, and Adam is the representation of the person dealing with the consequences. In the end, when Andrew was killed along with Adam’s girlfriend, it represents an end to that “personality” and what it wanted. With the girlfriend “dead”, Adam has to commit to his wife. Since the crash occurred in Adam’s car, that part of his life is also represented as ending. Since Adam survives, so does his career as a history teacher. It is improbable Andrew could have done Adam’s job (maybe also vice versa). 

Also, if Adam and Andrew are the same person, it would mean one of them is not actually real. This brings up a whole slew of other intriguing ideas and hypotheses discussing what other aspects of the film are or are not real. We won’t explore these theories further at this time. 

Theory: Adam and Andrew Came From the Same Person

In terms of appearance, Adam and Andrew are identical except for one thing. The only external difference between the two seems to be the mark on Andrew’s finger from wearing his wedding ring. Otherwise, they are identical – and this includes the scar on both of their chests. This would lead us to believe that both Adam and Andrew were the same person at one time. How else could they both have the same scar, but not also the mark from the wedding ring? 

People have pointed towards biblical references to offer an explanation. Adam, of course gave his rib to God for him to make Eve. In Enemy, the scar both characters share is on the ribs. The original Adam could have given his rib for the creation of Andrew. Over time, the two people grew to be different from each other, even if they are still physically identical. It is the idea of nurture over nature. Each of these character’s walks in life has made their unique personalities. 

But if Andrew was created from Adam, it brings up the question of why. I think the answer is in the film’s title. As we have already shown, Andrew is the opposite of Adam in many ways. Andrew likes blueberries, Adam does not. The purpose of Andrew may be to test Adam. To show him the life he wants, but also how he will end up ungrateful for it. It could be a lesson to be thankful with what you have. For each of us, our biggest enemy is ourselves. It is us not being able to recognize the good things in our lives when we have them. It is frustration over not being able to be who we think we should be, rather than accepting who we are meant to be, which can ruin our lives. 

Theory: Adam and Andrew are Identical Twins

Another logical explanation is that Adam and Andrew are, in fact, different people. We’ve seen countless movies and documentaries about twins not knowing they are twins until they happen to run into the other twin. Maybe that is what is happening here. The scar could be explained by a coincidence, maybe a common injury or surgery both boys experienced when they were babies. If they were split up as children, it would explain their different lives and different last names. It could explain how they both happen to live in the same city. 

But this theory has the least amount of reasoning behind it, and is the least compelling outcome. In real life (i.e. not in a movie), there really isn’t any other possible explanation. But when Adam speaks with his mother, she discounts the possibility that they are twins. Yet, the idea that they are twins remains the easiest to accept – so the audience sticks with it. We look for excuses to continue believing that Adam and Andrew are twins. 

When Adam visits his mother, she feeds him blueberries, and talks about things which would have applied to Andrew. If they are twins, either their mother cannot tell the difference between them, or else she doesn’t know the difference. The mother’s mental state is not entirely clarified. It may be possible that she has a condition which impacts her memory, but proof is fleeting. More importantly, at one point in time, Anthony’s wife Helen reminds him to call his mother. This would suggest that Anthony has a relationship with his mother. The mother’s comments to Adam suggest she knows Anthony, and so it is likely they have the same mother. More importantly, it would suggest Adam and Anthony are the same person because their own mother doesn’t see the difference between them.  

The Spiders

Even though the film’s title and plot revolves around a pair of doppelgangers with uncertain origins, the most perplexing part of the film may be the giant spiders. In contrast to the film’s more realistic approach to the presentation, the sequences with spiders are surreal. But the surreal nature of the spiders is actually very fitting to the films thought-provoking themes. For one, we have to assume the spiders themselves are not real, but instead representative of something else. If we can conclude the giant spiders are not real, it makes it easier to admit one or more of the film’s characters are also likely not real. 

But the spiders are more than just a hint by the filmmakers to assist in the audience’s exploration of the film’s difficult concepts. The spiders are also an artistic choice which may reveal even more about the film’s intent. Villeneuve himself has claimed his choice to use the spiders was to create “…an image that…was a pretty hypnotic and profound [way] to express something about femininity that I was looking to express in one image.” Spiders by themselves can be off putting to some people, and to have them suddenly appear in a film at unexpected times certainly creates shock and makes the audience take notice. 

Villinueve claims the spiders express “something about femininity…” The connection between spiders and femininity can be traced back to Greek mythology when Athena changed Arachne into a spider after she challenged the Goddess to a weaving contest. Since then, spiders have been associated with females, and in Enemy, this is no different. The first scene of the film has women and tarantulas at a sex club. Later, we see a spider web in the fractured glass of Adam’s wrecked car when his girlfriend is killed. And at the end of the film it is Helen who seemingly transforms into a giant spider. 

Many people believe the spiders are referring to Adam/Andrew’s adult responsibilities. In the first scene of the film, Adam/Andrew goes to the sex club for a release. Here, the women kill the spiders as if they are providing a way for the men to forget about the troubles of their lives. When Helen transforms into the spider, this is Adam having to finally deal with the responsibility of having a wife and family. At the end of the film it is a giant spider which looms over everything. 

But the spiders could also be considered to have the opposite importance. Rather than signifying responsibility, they show the main character’s inability to deal with reality. In the opening scene, for example, Adam/Anthony is not exactly reveling in the spectacle. Instead, he hides his face with his hand and watches though the spaces between his fingers. This could represent his inability to deal with intimacy. Later, Helen transforms into a frightening spider because Adam/Anthony is not ready to settle down. The giant spider at the end is a representation of the challenges of the world at large, and Adam/Andrew’s inability to face them because of their internal trauma.

As I have demonstrated, there are many possible interpretations of the spiders. Some people have explained how they are representative of oppression, specifically how we become so fixated on our own lives we fail to see the larger changes going on around us. Others consider the spiders to be real – some sort of alien invader who can’t be seen by normal people. The point is, Villeneuve has crafted a film which can be interpreted in one of many ways. Some people may claim the message to be straightforward. Others pick out the more nuanced details. No matter what you believe, I think we can agree on one thing. Villeneuve included giant spiders in his film so that his audience could get SOMETHING out of it, although we can’t say exactly what that “something” is supposed to be.