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Director Denis Villeneuve made the cast of Enemy (2013) sign a confidentiality agreement that prohibits them from discussing with the media the meaning of spiders in the film. When I read this, I knew I had to tackle this subject.
Enemy is a film directed by Villeneuve that might best be described as “David Lynch directing a movie adapted from a Franz Kafka novel.” While this film’s plot is described as a man finding someone who looks exactly like him, Enemy is not a unique take on the doppelganger theme. Instead, it’s a very abstract and bizarre – in a good way – mindtrip of a movie whose themes and motifs center around the toxic relationship between infidelity and marital insecurities.
So What’s with All Those Spiders?
The constant references to spiders is not the theme of Enemy, per se. Instead, it’s a motif, which is defined as an “image, sound, action or other figures that has a symbolic significance and contributes toward the development of theme.” This is why there are so many references of spiders, both direct indirect, throughout Enemy. But what do they mean? (It seems this is something everyone wants to know!)
Let’s look at spiders and what they symbolize in the broader sense. Female spiders are one of the few animals that kill and devour their male partners soon after mating. The idea of the female destroying and eating her mate is horrific to humans, whose society is built upon the concept of a man and a woman mating and remaining together as partners to co-raise their children. Why do you think women who murder their husbands/boyfriends/lovers are often called “Black Widow” killers in the media? This calls upon the connotation of destructive female energy, particularly where men are concerned.
It is this interpretation of the spider that Denis Villeneuve sought to invoke with his use of the spider motif in Enemy.
Meet the Eight-Legged Females in Anthony/Adam’s Life
Throughout the film, the most direct appearances of spiders are always in reference to women. In particular, spiders are used to symbolize Anthony’s wife and his mother, as well as Adam’s girlfriend. is spider motif is used in reference and relation to Adam’s girlfriend as well as Anthony’s mother. Other, smaller references to spiders are made throughout the film, but I believe these are used to reinforce Anthony’s fears of women. Example: The wires above the city merge together to appear similar to a spider web, the spider-web like cracking of the car’s windshield during the accident scene, etc.
Let’s break down the major appearances of spiders and how they relate to the women in the film:
The first time we see a spider is in the very beginning of the film. Anthony is at a sex club and a tall, blond who looks a lot like Adam’s girlfriend, Mary (Melanie Laurent). The blond model sets a platter with a rather large, furry spider down upon the stage. She looms wearing only high-heeled shoes. As the spiders crawls off the platter and onto the stage, the model’s foot looms over it and begins to descend, as if to crush the spider.
Meaning: This scene of a blond model crushing a spider at a sex club symbolizes Anthony’s fantasies of revenge that he harbors toward women. Although it’s not revealed yet chronologically, Anthony projects all his animosity he has for his wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon) into the spider, as Helen has “trapped” Anthony in her web of marriage and pregnancy. The affair Anthony has with Mary, symbolized by the blond model, is his chosen instrument of revenge against Helen, personified by the spider. (Yes, I said that Mary is Anthony’s girlfriend as well as Adam’s. I’ll explain that in a bit.)
The next time we see a spider, it is a huge monstrosity that looms over the city. Anthony sees it while looking out the window of his mother’s house, not long after his mother chastises him about his failed acting career.
Meaning: Anthony’s dysfunctional relationship with his narcissistic and controlling mother – brilliantly hinted at in this scene – is the cause of his dark feelings about women. It makes sense that the spider he sees here is the largest one of the four arachnids in the film. Like most men, Anthony’s mother serves as the most significant female role model in his life. As such, his relationship with her helps shape his views about women and how he interacts with the ones in his life. This symbolism is rather ominous within this context.
The next significant spider motif is featured in the dream sequence of Anthony. In his dream, he is back at the sex club and he sees the same model from the film’s first scene. This time, however, she’s walking on the ceiling and her face is no longer her own. Instead, atop her shoulders is the hideous, fanged face of a spider. This dream occurs after we see Anthony’s car accident with “Adam’s” girlfriend following their argument in a hotel room.
Meaning: This scene happens near the film’s end, and it’s no coincidence that he has this dream following the argument and car crash scenes that proceeded it. Remember I mentioned that the model looks like Mary? Well, in this dream sequence, the model’s face is now a grotesque spider face. This symbolizes Anthony’s anger toward Mary for leaving him. That’s what their fight was about, and Anthony did everything he could to get Mary to stay, to no avail. The narcissistic and out-of-touch Anthony doesn’t see his own neediness and grasping for Mary. Instead, he projects these flaws into Mary, transmogrifying her into a spider, i.e., another evil woman who trapped him in her web and has since devoured him and moved on.
Which brings us to “Enemy’s” bizarre and abrupt ending and the use of the spider motif there. Anthony finds the key to the sex club in his coat and is once again tempted by his secret life of infidelity. (The sex club symbolizes his desires for sex outside his marriage.) Helen gets out of the shower and walks into their bedroom. Anthony mentions that he wants to “go out” that evening but Helen doesn’t reply. (Keep in mind, Helen KNOWS about Anthony’s past indiscretions and is concerned about him having another affair.) Getting no answer from Helen, Anthony goes to check on her… only to find that she has become a huge tarantula. The massive spider, which practically fills their bedroom, becomes so frightened of him that she backs into the wall and cowers there.
Meaning: This moment symbolizes a change in the power dynamic of Anthony/Helen’s relationship, at least from Anthony’s perspective. She’s still the web-weaving, evil female spider who wants to trap and devour him – in his mind – but now, she’s also trapped in a sense and dependent upon him. (She is six months pregnant in the film.) Her fear that he might cheat again gives him a certain amount of power in the relationship, at least in the present moment. Anthony realizes this, too. Watch his face during the last, fleeting moment of his closeup: He nearly breaks out into a wicked grin before the screen goes black.
Infidelity and the Relationship Power Dynamic
From my perspective, the relationship between infidelity and the power dynamic of relationships seems to be the theme of this film. Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!
There’s an old saying that states, “Affairs aren’t just about sex.” This is VERY true. Oftentimes, people have affairs as subconscious revenge and the false belief that they’re taking back the control they believe they’ve lost in their relationship. This is the theme of Enemy. Adam and Anthony are the same person. They represent Anthony’s battle within himself… a battle that takes place inside his mind as he struggles to reconcile his love for Helen with his irrational fears that she trapped him into marriage/fatherhood.
This theme is illustrated in several places within the film, including:
- The movie poster basically states that it’s all in Anthony’s head.
- Adam’s preoccupations with tyranny and the recurring battle within his mind. He all but tells us what the film’s theme is when he addresses his class: “Control, it’s all about control. Every dictatorship has one obsession and that’s it… and it’s important to remember this, that this is a pattern, that repeats itself throughout history.”
- Did you notice Anthony’s role in the film “When There is a Will, There is a Way?” The scene from this “film” is played on Adam’s laptop shows a gorgeous woman walking down the promenade of an expensive hotel. There, holding her bags, is Anthony, playing the part of a bellhop. I believe this dream sequence/alleged film symbolizes Anthony’s fears of playing a subservient role to the women in his life, as exemplified by his bellhop role.
- Allegedly, Adam the schoolteacher has a girlfriend while Anthony is married, yet Anthony’s mother says to him, “You already have enough trouble sticking with one woman, don’t you?”
- Adam and Anthony meet each other in a motel room. This scene is important because it symbolizes Anthony coming face-to-face with the fact that he cheats on his wife. Note that one of them rents the room and enters it, shutting the door behind him. The other seems to have a key that allows him to unlock the door and enter. They didn’t arrive together nor did they check in together, so why does the double who didn’t check in miraculously have a key?
- Another note on the hotel room: Did you notice that Anthony takes “Adam’s” girlfriend to that exact same hotel room? It’s that night that Anthony is allegedly pretending to be “Adam.” Again, this reinforces the notion that, within that hotel room, Anthony comes face to face with this other side of himself.
- This film is based off the novel “The Double,” by Portuguese writer Jose Saramago. I believe its renaming is a reference to the commonly-used phrase, “I am my own worst enemy,” which pretty much sums up Anthony’s struggles.
What Do You Think?
Enemy is an interesting film that’s very symbolic and thus, open to interpretation. IF you saw this amazing film, let me know what you think about its overall theme and meanings.
About J.P. Ribner
J.P. Ribner is the author of Viking fantasy adventure series “The Berserker’s Saga.” Currently, the saga features two novels – “Legacy of the Bear” and “Prophecy of the Bear.” For more about his written work, check out his website.