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Weblog From Nowhere-Land

The Spider's Stratagem

If you haven't yet seen Denis Villeneuve's ENEMY, the year's strangest and most nightmarishly captivating movie, time to Netflix it. Villenueve, French-Canadian director of the Oscar-nominated INCENDIES and the child abduction thriller, PRISONERS, has made the closest thing we have to a David Lynch film in a year without a David Lynch film, and as with Lynch, some people may find meanings too obscure and the visual language too abstruse. I think it's at least a minor masterpiece, and it also has the year's most distinctive score, by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, aka Stenfert Charles. Haven't heard low woodwinds used so prominently since Bernard Herrmann died (though in all other ways, the score is thoroughly contemporary).

Doppelgängers seem to be in the cinematic water these days, and ENEMY is the best example of the trend so far. It's based on the novel, "O Homem Duplicado" (published in English as THE DOUBLE) by the Portugese Nobel Prize winner, José Saramago, who died just two years ago and along with Javier Gullón, also receives a screenwriting credit. Despite altering setting and story in significant ways, Villeneuve has captured the matter-of-factly dreamlike quality of Latin literature, in which fantastical things happen in the most casual way (your dead grandfather joins you for dinner and talks of his childhood, then dabs his mouth and excuses himself, leaving you as alone as you were minutes before). One now semi-famous shot shows a giant spider hovering over the city of Toronto against a sky that one reviewer described as "nicotine-stained." The shot appears fleetingly (I'm guessing not more than 40 frames) between two fairly straight dialogue scenes, with no set-up and no explanation. We never (well, almost never) see the spider again, and I had to go back and frame-by-frame the section just to make sure I'd seen it the first time. It was scarier the second time around.

As now happens with nearly all "puzzle movies" and TV series ("True Detective" comes to mind) that cross the threshold of public awareness, an internet demimonde has arisen to debate the meaning of the film and its trauma-inducing final shots, which film.com have called "the scariest ending of any movie ever made." One reviewer, Chris Stuckman, posted an exhaustive video exegesis of the story, from a neo-Freudian perspective, and claims to have wrapped it all up. His arguments have the virtue of coherence and seem to jibe with things the director has said. But that's the thing about a genuinely ambiguous and enigmatic work of popular art: it lends itself to dozens of seemingly self-consistent explanations. This was the case with MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and I still haven't heard one that nails it definitively. Sometimes, it's better to let things bypass rational consciousness and go straight to the deeper place, where all mysteries are ultimately solved. And I think that with regard to ENEMY, I'll hold on for a while to my original "What the Fuck?" reaction, and all that it suggested about love and fascism, the make-up of the mind, and of course, sex and spiders.

A word about that score. The changing tides of the international movie business have recently brought us a number of examples of what could be called "naive scoring." A few of these have won Oscars. Now, I like a lot of naive art--I'm a fan of Howard Finster and of the Balkan oil-on-glass painters--so I use the term without prejudice. But there are some contemporary film composers whose approach is so untutored that my heart aches for the students (some of them mine) working their butts off to understand how to employ the harmonic language of Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" in film music. This is not the case with Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns' score for ENEMY. The compositional style is lean, the structure simple and transparent, and there's nothing remotely "symphonic" about it. But it is not at all naive. If anything, it's closer to what used to be called avant-garde. Most importantly, the music is thoroughly embedded in the soundscape of the movie. A man walks alone into a dark room, accompanied only by two bass clarinets (one of them may be a contra-alto) in simple counterpoint, and it's boldly effective. And when they do use ensemble strings, they do it in as darkly elegant a way as Herrmann or Goldsmith. The result is a score that sounds like schizophrenia feels. And that...is terrifying.
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