Revisiting the Ending of Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Spiders and All

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Jake Gyllenhaal – one of him, at least – in Enemy. Photo: Pathé International

Ever watched the end of a movie and thought, “I have no idea what I just watched?” Vulture is here for you! We’ll be going back and taking a look at some notable endings in film, trying to explain what happened, why, and what it all really means. Previously in this series, we covered the ending of Donnie Darko.

When Enemy came out in 2014, Denis Villeneuve was in between phases. He’d just done Prisoners, the project that marked his transition from the critically revered Canadian films Polytechnique and Incendies into Hollywood proper, but he had yet to make Sicario and Arrival, the two movies that would solidify him as one of the best directors currently working.

In a certain sense, Enemy, a loose adaptation of José Saramago’s The Double, is an excellent harbinger of what Villeneuve had on deck. Like Sicario and Arrival, Enemy is a saturated film, every moment practically dripping with suggestion; in the case of Enemy, that suggestion is of menace, danger, and calamity inching ever closer, frame by frame. Villeneuve is a master of mise-en-scène, and in Enemy, just as much as the two later movies he’d be lauded for, there’s an incredible consistency and intensity to his vision. From the brutalist architecture of the University of Toronto Scarsborough campus to the crisscrossing wires of the streetcars to the sepia-heavy color schemes to the camera, which dollies beautifully through the entire film, every element in front of Villeneuve’s lens helps build a sense of dread and foreboding.

By this point, if you know anything about Enemy, you’re like, “Cool, we get it, Villeneuve’s good — but what about the spiders?” We’ll get there. But it’s important to establish the context for this incredibly bizarre movie, a movie that would be strange had it been made by the most Lynchian of independent filmmakers, but is even stranger coming from a guy who’s since been entrusted with the reins of a franchise.

Enemy is about a man, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. His name is Adam Bell, and he teaches history, and he looks really bummed out. Something isn’t sitting right with this guy. He moves through the world like it’s about to eat him, shoulders hunched and face hangdog, and even the fact that he has a beautiful sorta-girlfriend, Mary, played by Melanie Laurent, seems more like a burden than a source of joy. Maybe it’s what he’s teaching — dense theory, Hegel and Marx, the patterns of history and the relationship of dictators to control; maybe it’s the weird spider-party we see him at in the first scene, filled with a bunch of guys who look like they’re enjoying the entertainment way too much. What are they watching? Well, it appears to be a woman masturbating, and then another woman stepping on a tarantula with a high heel. You could see how that would take a toll on even the most cheerful of men, and something about Adam’s vibe gives the sense that he’s never been Mr. Sunshine.

But wait: Is it Adam at the spider party? Because soon after we meet him, a colleague suggests he watch a film called Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way. (Adam’s first response is, “I don’t really like movies.” Fun guy!) When Adam checks it out, he discovers that there’s an actor in it who looks exactly like him. And by exactly like him, I don’t mean they look exactly alike like your mom thinks you look exactly like Tom Cruise: I mean they both have the good fortune to be played by Jake Gyllenhaal. A little sleuthing by Adam reveals that this guy is an actor who goes by the alias Daniel Saint-Clare but is in fact named Anthony Clare, and he has a very pregnant wife, Helen, played by the superb Sarah Gadon.

The rest of the film unfolds as follows: Adam introduces himself to Anthony; Anthony tells him to fuck off, then decides that, actually, they should meet; Anthony blackmails Adam into letting him take Mary on a romantic getaway, where he has sex with her in a motel; Adam goes to Anthony’s apartment, where he pretends to be Anthony and has sex with his wife, only, in this case, it’s Helen who initiates it, knowing that he isn’t her husband; Mary then realizes that Anthony isn’t Adam, demands that they leave, and on the way home, they get in a car crash and die; and then Adam walks into Anthony’s bedroom to find that Helen has transformed into a giant spider. Fin.

So! This terrific, elliptical film, one of the best and most underrated of the last few years, leaves us with two fundamental mysteries: Who are Adam and Anthony? And what’s the deal with all the spiders?

Who are Adam and Anthony?

Let’s start with what we do know: Adam and Anthony are two different people, at least to some extent. At multiple points, the film just avoids confirming this for us. When Helen calls Anthony after encountering Adam at the his work, he picks up just as Adam disappears into a building. Adam and Anthony appear together twice, but only by themselves, with no witnesses. When Anthony talks to Helen on the phone, Adam isn’t home. (Adam talks to Anthony again when Helen is around, but that time, she doesn’t speak to him — and moreover, she accuses Anthony of lying about whom he was talking to.) Because of all this, there’s the slightest possibility that somehow, one man could be living a bifurcated life. We don’t really know how Anthony spends his days while Adam’s at school, and Adam’s relationship with Mary seems to be somehow irregular or inconsistent, dovetailing with the general sense that Anthony’s had an affair before.

But the major sign that the two men exist separately comes when Mary notices a mark on Anthony’s finger from his wedding ring, which he’d taken off before going to see her. That mark is significant: It’s what leads to the fight with Mary that culminates in their deaths, an event that also appears to be confirmed as real based on a report on the radio the next morning. (Although apart from the ring thing, you could make a strong argument that Adam could’ve projected his own vision onto that event, turning it into the death of Anthony, a creation of his psyche.) If Anthony’s finger bears that mark, and she’s just noticing it for the first time, that means Anthony and Adam are different people. However, it’s hard to tell just when they became separate people. Both share the same scar on their chest; short of the two of them having been identically maimed early in their lives, that scar indicates some kind of shared life.

Here’s where things get weird. Adam’s name is noteworthy; you might remember that, in the Book of Genesis, Adam, the first man, was created in the likeness of God. God then took a rib from Adam and using it made Eve. Adam and Anthony’s scars are on their rib cage.

Following this train of thought, we might hypothesize that at some point, Anthony was made from Adam, fully formed but subtly different, and the two then went about separate lives: one meek and self-conscious, the other cocky and volatile. While this is, obviously, not a scientific or verifiable explanation, art doesn’t have to be scientific or verifiable, thank God. This interpretation gains some added credibility from the sense that they seem to share a mother. When Adam goes to see his mother, she believes he likes blueberries, which he denies; meanwhile, Anthony gives Helen an entire lecture on blueberries, particularly organic ones, and the importance of having them around for his smoothies. (That also gives a pretty good sense of what Anthony’s like as a dude.) His mother references his “nice apartment,” a term that could not in good conscience be applied to the place where Adam lives — Anthony confirms as much when he visits, calling it, if I remember correctly, “a shithole” — but would accurately describe Anthony’s place. She also mentions that he can’t commit to one woman, even though both Adam and Anthony appear to be in relationships, and references his acting career, which she wouldn’t know about unless she was just really into local Canadian cinema — or he, Anthony, told her.

In conclusion: Adam and Anthony are different, but seem to have sprung from the same being. Based on the names and the movie’s point of view, Adam would be the best guess for who came first, but hey: Only Isabella Rossellini knows for sure.

What’s the deal with all the spiders?

Oh, man. This nut’s a little harder to crack, but let’s give it a try. Spiders, namely tarantulas, appear in a few different scenes. In the opening, either Adam or Anthony (more on that in a sec) visits the aforementioned sex dungeon/zoological society, where a woman in a high heel is poised to crush a tarantula while Adam/Anthony looks on through his fingers. Two more dreamlike images follow. In one, a naked woman walks down a hallway past Adam/Anthony, her head replaced by an arachnoid head; and in the other, enormous spiders straddle Toronto, looking like a Canadian War of the Worlds. Both of these could be explained away as dreams, but then in the final shot, Adam walks into the room Helen just entered to find an enormous tarantula huddled in the corner.

The spiders, then, feel less like a literal function of the plot and more like an overarching metaphor. In an interview with Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve that plays after the credits on Amazon Prime, the director said this about the spiders:

“To be honest with you, it’s not in the book, it’s not in the novel, and I’m not sure if Saramago would’ve been happy with the idea of having something that is so surrealistic in his naturalistic environment that he created in the novel. It’s an image that I found that was a pretty hypnotic and profound [way] to express something about femininity that I was looking to express in one image. Because in the book you can use chapters to express something, but in cinema you have one shot, and the spider was exactly the perfect image. There’s movies that I saw in my life that propose images that were not explained, but were provocative, that were opening doors from a subconscious point of view — images that are frightening and oppressive, but at the same time, you feel the image. It prints itself in your brain, but you feel uncomfortable with it. But there’s a strong meaning in it, and I think that if you think just a little bit you will find it quite quickly.”

If you found it quickly, then good for you: You are Jake Gyllenhaal. If not, don’t feel too bad. My instinct is to approach it surrealistically, as Villeneuve suggests. In Enemy, the spiders mostly appear in dreams, or in dreamlike scenarios, suggesting a Jungian approach to their interpretation. On the one hand, spiders are frightening and dangerous; on the other, they have a direct connection to femininity. In the Arachne myth, which Ovid recounts in Metamorphoses, Arachne beats Athena in a weaving contest, but doesn’t acknowledge that she was able to win thanks to the gift of weaving that Athena gave her in the first place. (One of the many lessons of Greek mythology: Be grateful to the gods, or they will mess you up.) Athena strikes Arachne with intense guilt, which causes her to hang herself. When Athena sees her dead body, she feels a little bad about causing the girl’s suicide just because she lost a weaving contest, so she turns Arachne into a spider, allowing her to weave for all eternity — just not as a human.

Helen’s transformation into a spider, then, has precedent. But Enemy doesn’t contain any weaving contests, unless the DVD’s got some deleted scenes. Instead, the spider connection seems to stem from a different system of thought: the Freudian Madonna-whore complex, in which men see women as either saintly mothers or worthless sex objects. The spiders are implicated early on in the film in some sort of sexual rite, and when Helen, a pregnant woman, turns into the spider after having sex with Adam — shortly after Anthony cheats on his pregnant wife with Mary — it could be seen as a literalization of Adam’s disturbed psyche, which can’t handle intimate relationships. Enemy appears to say that even though Adam has done away with Anthony — and Mary, an innocent bystander who represents some sort of purely sexual relationship, in the process — he still has a ways to go before he can reconcile these two facets of womanhood. And note the names: Mary, the mother of Christ; and Helen, the catalyst for the Trojan War. There’s also a motif around high heels, an obvious feminine symbol: Adam and Anthony each notice Helen and Mary’s heels at separate points in the film, and the platform heels used to crush the spider at the beginning are, uh, hard to miss.

A film that handles ambiguity and symbolism so deftly, while still providing the more concrete thrills of watching a great actor and great director do adventurous, striking work, is a rare and special thing, and that’s why Enemy’s so brilliant: It can support these readings while still not giving itself away. Although arachnophobes might want to sit this one out.

Revisiting the Ending of Denis Villaneuve’s Enemy