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

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

Parasite (2019)

Parasite

It’s a rare time in my life when I’m catching movies as they’re coming out. Truth be told I struggle to keep up with releases, and am often catching the talked about films much later when the hype has died down. But Parasite (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2019) is still very much boiling away in the current cultural melting pot, at least where I am. From the outside the world has seemingly “woken up” to the import of Korean cinema, or at the very least from a few select and eccentric male auteurs. One of cinema’s best abilities has always been its ability to cross transnational boundaries, the image tells a story (with the aid of translation) which I can understand, a person who doesn’t know the language of Korean. And Parasite is another example of that, but what else is resonating in Parasite to make it bubble away in the focus of the cultural eye?

Well the easy answer is a lot, because Parasite is a very good film.


Often I’ll deconstruct a film when I write these, wanting to separate its elements, to analyse and focus on what gives them (for me) both meaning and excellence. And while I could give the same treatment to Parasite, it’s more interesting to me right now to try and contemplate on what Parasite wants to communicate to us. What story is Parasite trying to tell, why? Why does Bong Joon-ho open this cinematic portal to us? I think in an age where media is more accessible than ever, and media consumption only increases, it is easier than ever to only engage with film from an entertainment perspective. Even for those who love and enjoy cinema for more than it’s purely spectacle inducing qualities, the stars and the special effects and etc, it is harder than ever to pay homage to or even contemplate what movies can truly do. Maybe it’s elitist to say, but with distractions more rife than ever I know I find it difficult in between life, in between laziness and in between the lows to find time to pay attention to cinema.

Maybe Bong Joon-ho agrees with me, or disagrees, or doesn’t care. The director’s words are an authority, but to run to him for the answers and/or for the “proper” meaning or reasons Parasite exists is a mistake. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to him, he’s a gifted visionary and probably has a lot of wisdom under his belt. But also art has always been a conversation between artists and the world around them, and to grow a film experience is only one part, while its’ absorption and digestion by an audience is another.  Film’s are constructed experiences and perspectives, and they have more than enough dimensions to accomodate how you see them, not just how the director does. A horse can be taken to water, but it cannot be made to drink.

So what grows out of Parasite? A vision of a home, a vision of shelter. A vision of family, a vision of animals. A vision of turmoil, a vision of the soil of the Earth. Our family, or at the least one Bong Joon-ho asks us to gravitate towards, is a family which lives in an environment, in the layers of the world that surround us too. They try to get employment, they manipulate a wealthier, “classier” family into siphoning their money towards them, feeding off of the world around them. The different tribes and insects of the environment act and react towards each other, circling and twisting and attacking and defending. The home space begins to take on definitions beyond it’s surface. The walls contain characters from each other, allowing developments such as when the son Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-shik) can begin flirting with Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). Hiding places begin to reveal themselves in plain sight, as the architecture of the building itself is explored by the families. The environments of our lives contain these structures, we all have our houses and they all have their spots that we may or may not know about. Our vision only lets us see so much, and we’ll never know the full extent of our shelter’s and their collective experiences.

So is this what resonates with us? After all humans enjoy watching other humans, and it is not hard to see the conflicts unfolding in Parasite and understand, relate to or even empathise with any and all of the characters in the film at any particular point. The terrarium they live in, which we observe with patience and an ability beyond our usual bounds, is one where we can see ourselves in it. Our yearnings for family, stability, the complex and shifting layers of social communication we build up over time with the people around us. The parasites of this world make up the fabric of it, and we become draped in their mind’s clothes. As the environment’s fabric becomes stressed, torn and ripped apart, so too does our relations to them. Change comes to all, but the twisting and unexpected changes which come to fruition through the house resonate with us because they are reflective of the unanticipated consequences of real life, of discovering secrets in the unknown which can’t be put back in their boxes.

Film engages in a double edged trick. It is not real, but it is often designed to ‘feel real’. The easiest metaphor to make is that it is a parasite, feeding off our dreams and imaginations and bringing them into existence. We relate to the constructed mock-ups of humanity, in a terrarium we watch imagined characters play out imagined conflicts. We judge, align, pick and choose where we are in relation to the world of the film, grounding ourselves in a vision of humanity enclosed away from our interaction. Maybe that is just the resonance we get out of films, maybe it isn’t really all that deep. Maybe Parasite bubbles briefly in the cultural consciousness because it’s a film about people and people are interested in people.

But then being a parasite, or being a human, or being anything inbetween isn’t summed up by just an easy word. Parasite’s frames show us that the experience of life, on every level through whatever structures we pass through, spend time in, are played out on a landscape which is far more complicated than we could ever understand, and all we can hope to do is navigate it well enough to survive, feed and hope for better times. I don’t think I could ever properly answer what’s happening to make Parasite the centre of attention now, but at the very least I can try to do justice to what I can see emanating from the film, what kind of resonance it wants to evoke in the final piece of the cinema experience.

You watching it.

-Alex

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Parasite (2019)

Mr. Nobody (2009)

Mr Nobody

It’s hard not to give up, with life I think. I felt that, as Jared Leto delivered a couple of lines about how the universe extends through entropy and the atoms of the world continue on a trend of disorder and disappation. Growing through time means more experiences, more ups and more downs. More edges to fall off, dead ends to get stuck in, whirlpools of life which you had not prepared for. The metaphor in Mr. Nobody (2009, Dir. Jaco Van Dormael) is life on tracks, different paths. Their intersections, their parallels, their different destination and journeys along the way. Life dances with increasing complexity each day, and it’s design pushes you into spaces and times that unravel around you dizzyingly. If you can hold on, you can. So you do.

But is that really it?


Sometimes we look up to the skies, and think. The reason we don’t do this all the time someone once told me, was so we could avoid being eaten by sabertooth tigers. There are no sabertooths now, but we still don’t stay in that state of contemplation today. Should we? Mr Nobody, concerns a man at the end of his life, in a future where death has been put on pause. Except for Nemo Nobody, a 118 year old man who is remembering his life. Except for the fact that he’s remembering possible versions of his life, experienced from the point of the present, when the human element of choice allows more than one outcome to happen. Which way does he go? Every way. Routes unfold along separate tracks simultaneously, and Nemo is along for every ride in a different form. His life is malleable, changed by the circumstances of chance.

Nemo has a lot of time to think, and several metaphorical sabertooth tigers to confront. It’s something of a cerebral house of mirrors, Leto’s performance reflected and transforming in the moment, across different lives and different experiences. Leto shifts like a true chameleon in a role which is akin to water, Nemo fills up whatever space and time contains him, taking on elements of their form. We’re asked to see Nemo in a perspective which cuts across our usual viewing senses, not to relate to him as a singular entity, but to relate to him in whatever adaptation his life has taken across multiple streams. Actions in childhood affect our older selves, which affect our oldest selves. The consequences are often unclear, distant, only revealed with time and reflection and even then maybe not. But the water of Nemo’s character fills the shape of the film itself, and we are asked to push beyond our normal understanding of time to see with greater clarity, the way life happens.

Nemo has big worlds to think in as well. The environments of the Earth (and beyond) fill up the screen, with VFX work which really blew me away. The visual aesthetic of the film is woven deep into the film in general. The cinematography is varied and dense, the codes of each world cinematically helping us to form understandings of different worlds. If “life is a playground or nothing”, then the artistic construction of the film lives up to it, as it plays effortlessly with different cinematographic styles. It’s music spills over at times, and gently accompanies at others. The stylistic expressions follow those possibilities, ebbing and flowing and evolving with where Nemo is, who Nemo is, when Nemo is. There is breadth and power in variety, and Van Dormael knew that when he stitched together the pieces of Mr. Nobody. 

Is there a great resounding answer I need to write here, to prove to myself and you the reader about the worth of what the film has to say? Life is there to make of it what you will, and holding onto its dizzying turns is a complicated procedure. Mr. Nobody wants you to know what life could mean, and it pushes through the very fabric of our understanding of the world to do so. It splits open the human experience in a way only the imagination can do, to show us the possible fruits growing at its core. But it’s a film, 2 and a half hours of a day which turns into a week into a year etc. Life is communicated through art. But life isn’t lived through art, it’s reflected by it. Art is our hall of mirrors, our water to fill up the forms of our lives. The reflections you see, only you can make peace with them. Van Dormael offers a path, one that doesn’t have to be taken. To him, they are all meaningful, whichever one is taken.What is important is that paths can be taken, life can be lived.

Art is not going to be around forever, or maybe it is. We’re not going to be around forever, or maybe we are. The answers are what we seek, but we don’t live in answers. Most of our lives are spent searching for them, so that’s where we spend most of our perspectives. I know I’ve gone off on a tangent, but life can cope with that. Life copes with tangents, with edges and dead ends and whirlpools and whatever else is here in the playground. The variety of it all overwhelms any one particular answer, one particular life. Questions about life can only get you so far, answers can only get you so far. Thinking about life can only get you so far. What is meaningful is that life got us anywhere at all. And the sooner I can make peace with my reflection, the sooner I can get back to avoiding those sabertooth tigers. “If you never make a choice, anything is possible” goes the tagline for the film. Well, I’ll try make anything happen then.

-Alex

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Mr. Nobody (2009)