The Divided Self: Enemy (2013) & The Double (2013)

Enemy and The Double

Its difficult to keep track of all the fragments of your personality. The older you get and the more experience you accrue, it all eventually mounts up; like layers of discarded masks picked up as and when you need them. It’s easy to see a unified version of yourself at a glance, all contained inside your fleshy shell. You can look in the mirror and see who you are now, take it all in and keep your memories like photographs, clothes in a closet that you never wear again but still live there.

It makes sense then, that fiction is used as an avenue to explore something interesting: yourself. Or rather, fiction can manifest those sides of your personality that you no longer have access to, the sides you keep desperately repressed, the sides that lurk just out of your vision waiting for the chance to become a reality. The masks slip and tumble off our faces, first a grin and then a grimace. Our personalities can be frankensteined collages of the faces we’ve worn and will come to wear, and it’s this subject which swirls at the core of both Enemy (2013, Dir. Denis Villeneuve) and The Double (2013, Dir. Richard Ayoade).

The churning dark currents of our identities, when they’re acrobatically examined by the lens of fiction, what do they reveal?


 

Enemy has the tone of an opium dream. Silent, brief moments of clarity punctuate a strung out rhythm of asymmetric beats and scenes. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a man who upon watching a rented film, discovers and tracks down a man who looks just like him, Anthony Claire (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). The two men are identical in looks, but their personalities are apart. The morbid curiosity to stare into the eyes of someone who looks as you do propels Adam into an entanglement with a mirrored image which acts independently of your whims, your movements. The film unfolds in jagged, mellow, spiralling bends as their lives start to entangle. Anthony forces Adam to give him a romantic getaway with his girlfriend, looking into eyes which look exactly the same while they demand something different.

Except the opium dream seems to disentegrate through your fingers. Adam’s dreams themselves start to blur into his waking reality, and the nature of the divided men begins to collapse in on itself. The two self’s of the film distort into a more subterreanean realm, that of the fractured mind of a singular person. As the film’s legs begin to stretch over your mind, you are guided towards the understanding of how Adam and Anthony are the identity of a singular man over time, that is being warped into the framework of two separate figures. The film, like a klein bottle, holds both possibilities in it’s construction of the external nature of the two of them, and the internal nature of the two men merely being two different masks that have been slipped on and off in time.

The story, boiling away with intensity, spills over the top, oil-slick and messy and staining your understanding of what’s happening. Literally and symbolically, Adam/Anthony’s greatest enemy’s are themselves/is himself. His changing and splintering identity becomes divorced from merely an internal voice in his head, it becomes a real conflict which pushes and punishes himself through the brief window into his life we can see. It feels almost delirious, as the web keeps spinning around all the characters involved in the film, the hollow yellows of the film’s cinematography keeping you company as this shifting mass of identity conflicts churns mysteriously at the film’s heart.

Enemy’s answers to navigating identity are like magic tricks which are never explained, their secrets unknown and left to silence. The film’s nature finally collapses into a merging of it all, the fictions and the realities of the world are one and the same, and the mysterious entanglements of the web spun around you prevent you from ever being able to separate which is which. The divided self here merges into all that it can be, a unified discord of chaos.


 

The Double has the tone of a fever dream. Relentless and spiky stacatto rhythms drill into the world around you, only rarely giving way to moments of quiet, gentle melancholy. Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a quiet and nearly anonymous employee at a dystopian data processing centre, who one day is confronted with his doppelganger (and brand new employee), James Simon. The two men are identical in looks, but their personalities are apart. James is a shadow version of Simon, a Machiavellian reimagining of Simon’s meek and long-suffering existence. His mirror image (acting independently) can only exacerbate the deep-rooted insecurities and foibles lurking in Simon’s head and heart, and the amoral heart which drives James forwards soon turns towards more sour ends. The serrated cuts they make to each other lives start to bleed, and their entanglement quickly becomes a fight of moral and mortal proportions.

The fever dream never breaks.  The doppelganger is externalised fully, not a folding web of intricate identity fragments, but is a shadow version of Simon made whole. The world is indifferent to his plight. The curiosity of looking into the eyes of someone who resembles you so closely is paired with the wretched agony that no-one seems to care. Simon screams “He stole my face!”, a mask picked up by a different person, one who can be you “better” than you can. The horror is different here, because the internal identity is never questioned by Simon himself. This isn’t a matter of collecting up the salvageable pieces of who we are over time, the things we couldn’t imagine we might ever do and where our identities might take us next. Simon’s matter is that his identity is wretchedly irrelevant to the world around him, and it’s hostility is so great that he must take it upon himself to affirm it or die.

Having a double becomes a matter of cold, calculating rage, a furor which erupts only after every ounce of strength has been spent repressing it. Literally and symbolically, Simon’s greatest enemy is a version of himself which seems to have sprung from the swamps of his own unconscious, an enemy which could know him only as well as he knows himself (if not more). His doppelganger haunts him because he can expose bare how much the circumstances of Simon’s identity are not fixed by some magic framework, but they are in flux; changeable. He exposes that Simon’s identity is more of a construct than he would ever like to admit, a bitter pill to swallow which becomes unbearable. The self becomes divided to a point where it cannot be reconciled, and the shades of identity must murder one another or go mad.

The Double’s answers to navigating the murky seas of identity, are like magic tricks which are explained. The dream-like excitement and curiosity gives way to a colder, more brutal reality of sleight of hand, of deception; of being fooled. The web being weaved around Simon is not one of fog-like entrancement, of a world that cannot be known. The world becomes increasingly exact, increasingly clear about where it stands on Simon. It’s indifference only grows in focus as the story runs its course. The film’s nature doesn’t collapse in on itself, it unfolds methodically to a confrontation with itself, and requires nothing more than to kill or be killed. The divided self here separates into all that it can be: a manifestation of our own personal chaos, unified only by death.


Enemy and The Double both spin on a similar axis: a confrontation with a doppelganger, a person who looks like you. Exactly like you. They both explore what it might look like to confront yourself, someone who externally resembles you so well that you cannot tell the difference. This obvious boundary marker of who we are, what we look like, becomes tested and attacked and deeply questioned. Our identities are far more abstract, far more complicated than most of us would ever like to understand or give time to study. Films, art, fiction, they’re all ways of exploring ideas which we don’t find capable of grasping fully in the real world. The masks we have worn are many, and it’s impossible to keep track of them all.

What both films do then, is confront that thorny and stubborn issue that most of us would like to avoid looking at. Both find different outcomes, different meanings in the confrontation of a divided self, but both are transfixed by the same issues of who we are, why we are, and what does it mean to be how we are. Both stories in their own right, are a struggle with how to identify who we are when our identities are in flux. At first glance it might look gloomy, the answers offered involve include lying, repression, hallucinatory madness, manipulation, a joint suicide/murder. All that can be said is that are answers which reflect the human animal, and their exaggerated struggles of holding onto the many threads of their identities is meant to resonate with our own tangled webs, our own tangled struggles.

There are no succinct answers to questions of identity, mainly because there are no easy questions. You open a box which cannot be closed, but cannot fully ever be examined, and there are more masks to try on then you or I could ever imagine. Instead, the parallel which comes to mind, comes from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, a tale of a man wrestling with his own divided self. He’s told,

“Learn what is to be taken seriously, and laugh at the rest”.

And the one similarity I find most interesting between these two films, is that as both Simon and Adam reach the end of their knotted stories, both of them have the faintest smile on their faces.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here, or leave a comment below.

The Divided Self: Enemy (2013) & The Double (2013)

Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


The Act Of Killing (2013, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous) is one of those documentaries where its reputation precedes it. It’s a film which I’ve been considering for the site for a long time, mainly due to its content matter. Films can be many things, but more often than not they deal with the imaginary, the fictional, the made up. To hold the camera up as a mirror to the world rather than create a new one is not a choice which is pursued often. Documentaries on the whole craft narratives, piecing them together from the interviews and facts. It’s a far smaller niche for the film to fall into portraiture, to allow the interviewees themselves to tell their own stories, with as much subjectivity as possible. The human brain is continually reprinting its own memories, misremembering and imagining scenarios which fill in the gaps between our experiences of what “actually” happened.  It’s not hard to make the analogy that our brains work like micro-editing suites, constantly cutting and re-directing our own experiences to make them fall into the shape that we are happy with.

So what Joshua Oppenheimer did is turn that outwards, to allow the interviewees’ memories and their imaginations drive external recreations of the events in the real world. And the interviewees just so happen to be part of Indonesia’s dark blood soaked history. The men filmed in this documentary are executioners, who are hailed as national heroes. Anwar Congo and his compatriots are responsible for untold deaths, and they live in a world where they are praised, respected and secretly feared for it.  Oppenheimer gives them the opportunity to recreate their finest achievements, to show the audience how they killed hundreds of people, with themselves playing all the parts, both victims and perpetrators. They walk in the shoes of themselves from the past, and the victims they killed.

Why is this is a “Kino-Pravda” documentary? What truth does this show us that the real world cannot?

There’s a long running conflict in everyone, which contains how the world is and how the world should be. I believe every person deep down wants to re-model the world in some way according to their own desires. The strangeness of this film is to see what happens when the world is re-modelled alongside desires which I found to be alien to me. The actions they recreate in the image of film genres they liked, the gangster movie, the western etc. are actions that at once I would condone in real life and yet necessarily see as normal in films. If the number of people killed on-screen in all films was totalled up and put in front of me, I would probably balk. Witnessing these people take their inspirations from art and apply it to their real world, to mimic the ways these actors killed their on screen counterparts, is deeply disturbing.

What’s more disturbing is being witness to this darker side of the world.  The basic assumption that goes through human experience is that good acts are rewarded and bad acts are punished, in some way. Whether through hell or reincarnation or just the penal system, we always believe in some sort of assessment of acts, judgement. But when the judgement is inverted, the whole film acts as this strange perversion of what we deem justice, and these men walk around in reality being praised for the acts we’d condemn. If it was a fictional piece, you’d call it a black comedy. But there’s no humour to be found in this world because it’s real.  Because there’s no distance between the imagination, there’s no safety net of it only being a story, a play, a movie. The film is a historical record of a dangerous inverted world. One which continues to create horror.

It’s a deeply reflective and absorbing document, because it pushes you to grapple with something which can’t be resolved easily, which reveals how strange and how bizarre the truth can really be. Not only that, but it plumbs the depths of those uglier characteristics we might often keep suppressed. We see the opulence of these death squad warriors, the rich landscapes and environments they possess for themselves. We see the admiration and clamor they raise for themselves. We see that even those who are in control are still restrained by fear, over their image, over their attitudes, over the words they say. Everyone is restrained by the system, and in their very unique way the perpetrators do not come away unscathed.

The film refuses easy answers. It allows the subjects to speak for themselves, it doesn’t conform to the narrative expectations we’ve assumed over countless stories. There is no grandiose repentance, no reckoning with the moral complexities of their actions. Only Anwar shows any signs of reckoning, but the dark seas within him fail to find any resolution we might find satisfying. But then what this film does is not satisfying. The entire experience is anything but pleasant or entertaining.  But the film is so hard to bear, nearly three hours long in its Director’s Cut, and you simultaneously understand why people desire escapist, easy to consume stories but also the pain of people not confronting the real world around them.

The whole world is a continual blend of art and life integrating and mixing with each other, and the events which inspired this film are from both. By foregoing any rigid definitions, to only tell the facts or only tell the stories, Oppenheimer made a film which pushes the world around it in some form to confronting the darker side of human nature.  There are so many films that have been made to be enjoyed, but not everything on this world is enjoyable, or even those things which are can often not be “good” in the moral sense. The word that really captures it is “vision”, a word which means “something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural”, but whose Latin root is in the word “videre”.

It means to see.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing