Me, myself and I: the doppelganger question

By Genevieve Valentine
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 26, 2014

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Surprise, surprise: "Enemy" star Jake Gyllenhaal is just the latest dude in a long line of ‘em who’ve been granted spooky twins by Hollywood magic.

The doppelganger of legend is almost universally an omen of bad luck. To see the doppelganger of a loved one heralds misfortune; to see one’s own heralds death. Occasionally a doppelganger tale is merely uncanny rather than overtly malicious, but even then, the psychological underpinnings of this apparition are the same: the idea of identity as fragile enough to be overturned at any moment. Under these auspices, Enemy’s sense of inevitable disaster falls under the umbrella of folklore shorthand, and even when the film doesn’t quite earn that antagonism, there’s that same inherited resonance at work. To face oneself is always a portent of doom. (See review.)

But it’s striking that, despite the doppelganger not being a particularly gendered construct in itself, how often this particular double feature is about men, and how often their inevitable competition is over a woman. In the storied history of doppelganger films, there are more men than women (for every Mulholland Drive, there’s The Prestige, Schizopolis, and even Journey to the Far Side of the Sun). And women in doppelganger movies about men are often reduced to love interests with a sinister twist: Dead Ringers might take the trophy for creepiest fight by doubles over a woman, but there’s no shortage of contenders. It seems to be a central conceit of such doppelganger stories that the suffering of women is a byproduct of exploring a man’s identity. Is masculine identity so easily broken that laying claim to a woman is the only way to claim a win? (Even Metropolis, which has a female double in Maria’s Maschinenmensch revolutionary, positions the pair of women as the construct of one man to galvanize another.)

It’s an apt coincidence that Enemy is one of two doppelganger movies coming out this year. (The other, Richard Ayoade’s forthcoming The Double, is based on the eponymous Dostoyevsky story, as Enemy is adapted from José Saramago’s novel, The Double.) Enemy concerns the usual preoccupations of the cinematic doppelganger trope—a man who realizes the world is, in fact, big enough for more than one of him, and the freefall of identity that follows. But Enemy also uses women as plot points, a proof of identity crisis and convenient outward object of the doubles’ inevitable competition.

Naturally, a doppelganger story is a story of the self, and on a symbolic level, a woman courted by doubles is simply sleeping with two metaphysical versions of her beloved. But—and this is the trick—such a thing is never obvious to the doppelgangers in question. And so while Enemy treats Anthony as villainous for asserting his dominance by demanding a weekend with Mary, Adam’s unwitting girlfriend, and the film seems to provide Adam a redemption arc when he refuses to enact revenge by sleeping with Helen, Anthony’s wife, it’s in a scene intercut with Anthony and Mary’s sex. The last-minute cold feet could position Adam as the good twin, if one can forget that he’s effectively sent his girlfriend out to be raped. (Mary discovers the ruse and understandably panics. It’s the second time in Enemy a man has tried to have sex with her without her consent; the first time, it was Adam.) If Mary were a character of any depth, this might ring horrific, but in a movie that opens in a movie-issue underground club with a woman masturbating for an audience of men, it’s hard to believe the film’s sympathies lie with its women. They’re symbolic, objects of desire and maybe even supernatural, but—as in many a doppelganger flick—it’s not their identities with which the movie is concerned.

It’s worth noting that Sarah Gadon, as Helen, transcends the beatific-mother archetype. No stranger to clawing through a sidelined role in an artsy thriller, her performance rings with otherworldly anxiety and a gaze that seems to cut the fourth wall. Her domestic scene with an increasingly wracked Adam is the film’s most interesting, as we see her catch on to the switch and quietly wrest control of the situation—a welcome moment of agency.

In the language of film, a doppelganger is a dangerous apparition, an iconic specter of the unknowable other, of one’s own mercurial identity and of some doomed misfortune. But as Enemy’s tragic women handily remind us, there’s a lingering question of whose misfortune, exactly, runs deepest.

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