TORONTO – There’s nothing easy about Jake Gyllenhaal’s surreal mind-bender “Enemy,” an existential thriller in which he plays a pair of identical doppelgangers locked in a tense psychological battle.
It’s strange, it’s dark and it’s challenging. And the “Brokeback Mountain” star says it was right up his alley.
“So many people would go, ‘Eh, I want something safer,’” Gyllenhaal said during a recent stop in Toronto for a round of interviews alongside the film’s Quebec director, Denis Villeneuve.
“And I think this happens a lot when … their careers get big or whatever. Or they think, ‘I need something safe because it needs to work. But I think that sense of exploration and that sense of artistry — that sense of connection with people that you’re working with — far exceeds whether or not something works, you know.
“And I think if you really believe in it and that energy is in the right place, it will work. And I think that’s the case with this movie. It may have been a risk, but it wasn’t a risk knowing the devotion and the talent of the person at the helm.”
That person being Villeneuve, the Oscar-nominated director who is a giant among art-house circles for searing portraits, including “Incendies” and “Polytechnique.”
While shooting “Enemy” in Toronto, the two forged such a bond that they reunited immediately afterward for Villeneuve’s big-budget, U.S. studio-backed breakout “Prisoners,” released last fall.
The pair bantered easily when they screened that movie to acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, often digressing from discussion about its grisly child abduction plot so Gyllenhaal could poke fun at Villeneuve’s broken English while the auteur feigned mock exasperation.
Reunited for a round of interviews in Toronto more recently, Villeneuve says he was impressed with Gyllenhaal’s willingness to embrace his provocative puzzle, “Enemy,” and simply couldn’t wait to work with him again.
“I think all artists, in all disciplines, you need to take risks to evolve,” said Villeneuve, noting the film is a “free” interpretation of Jose Saramago’s novel, “The Double.”
“And honestly ‘Enemy’ was a very risky project and I will never say ‘Thank you’ enough to Jake to agree to jump on this strange boat.”
So much of the film relies on Gyllenhaal’s committed performances — that of a sullen university lecturer named Adam and a small-time actor named Anthony whom Adam discovers in a movie.
Adam feels compelled to track down this eerily identical double, and is fascinated to discover Anthony is everything he is not — cocky, charismatic and self-assured.
Melanie Laurent plays Adam’s girlfriend while Sarah Gadon is Anthony’s very pregnant wife. Isabella Rossellini, who also appears in the movie, praised its myriad mysteries while attending the film festival.
“It’s an incredibly sophisticated film that made me think of Kafka, made me think of Magritte the painter, made me think of Escher, the sort of metaphysical painter, made me think of (works of) art that exist in other fields than films,” she said.
On top of it all is a nightmarish look at the sprawling city of Toronto, presented here as a dispirited wasteland, engulfed in a strange haze that feels haunted and dangerous, says Rossellini.
“(It’s) photographed beautifully … but since I’ve seen the film I haven’t looked at Toronto in the same way.” She chuckled.
“You almost feel that maybe Toronto is what caused this confusion in the identity because the city is enveloped into a cloud that makes your mind maybe go funny.”
Villeneuve says he wanted to treat Canada’s most populous metropolis as yet another character in the film, and relished the chance to play with its urban landscape in strange ways.
The unique vision helped earn “Enemy” five trophies at the recent Canadian Screen Awards, including a best director award for Villeneuve.
Gyllenhaal, who juxtaposes quirky indies including “Jarhead” and “Donnie Darko” with more commercially bent features like “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “Source Code,” says he’ll always be drawn to smaller indie pictures.
“You’re away from the eyes of judgment and critical aspects that start very early on in a bigger-sized movie where there’s more risk, financial risk,” he said.
“You get to explore in the sort of bubble and that’s what this was and that’s what I love to do and ironically that’s what Denis did when we made the next movie that I made with him (‘Prisoners’), even in a large context. It gave me a lot of faith in the movie-making process at any size — that it was possible to have a relationship with a director and make a movie that is a big-budget movie and still maintain real character and real connection.”
At the film festival last September, Villeneuve couldn’t help revealing his anxiety over how “Enemy” would be received.
“When you make a movie, it’s always flirting with disaster. You never know. A movie exists when it’s seen by an audience. You never know at the end of the day — it’s like a wish, a dream, but you don’t know if they will share the dream,” he said.
“When the audience will (sit) in the theatre to see ‘Enemy,’ they have to know that I want to play with them. It’s really like a game.”
“Enemy” opens Friday.