Generic No More: Toronto Modernism in Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Enemy’

Canadian cities such as Toronto or Vancouver are often used by Hollywood to represent either generic modern cities that could be anywhere, or else to act as substitute locations for specific American cities, usually New York or Chicago. An example of the former is The X Files, in which the Vancouver in which it was filmed represents no city in particular, while an example of the latter is provided by the movie Chicago, which was filmed entirely in Toronto (minus the stock footage establishment shot at the beginning). The reason Canadian cities make good substitute locations is precisely because they are so generic and unremarkable for the most part. (The low value of the Canadian dollar in the 1990s and the availability of subsidies also made it very attractive for Hollywood to shoot in Canada.)

It is therefore interesting when a film comes along in which a Canadian city is actually itself, with modern architecture being used to affirm urban identity rather than to erase it. The film Enemy, directed by Denis Villeneuve, does just that. In the opening establishment shot, Toronto’s CN tower, designed by architect John Andrews in the late 1960s, is shown in the very centre, so there’s no mistaking where this story takes place. (Then again, since Toronto so rarely represents itself on film, many non-Canadian viewers — especially Americans — may mistake the image for a US city. Not to worry though: Canadians are used to dealing with being mistaken for Americans)

Enemy: establishment shot.
Interestingly, Enemy’s portrayal of Toronto does not include, at any moment, that city’s pre-modern architecture, such as the vernacular Victorian rowhouses that are slowly disappearing in the current construction boom.  Instead, we see almost exclusively concrete and steel architecture that dates from the 1960s onward, such as the béton brut megastructure Scarborough College (also by John Andrews), St James Town apartment buildings, or the ‘Marilyn Monroe’ twin condominium towers in Mississauga by MAD.
Enemy: generic modern apartment buildings (St James Town, Toronto)…
… and generic modern office buildings (downtown Toronto).

The major role played by modernist architecture in Enemy inevitably invites comparison with Jaques Tati’s Playtime, even though these films are separated by over half a century of time as well as an ocean of distance, not to mention that Playtime is comical while Enemy is a creepy psycho-thriller. Like Enemy, Playtime’s architecture is exclusively modernist, yet in both cases fleeting appearances by monuments –in Playtime the Eiffel Tower makes a brief appearance as a reflection in a glass door — serve to situate the story in a real place. Another remarkable comparison is how both films use subdued colour tonality to create a certain ambiance — sepia-tone in the case of Enemy and a blueish, semi black-and-white tone in Playtime — that is consistent with modernist architecture’s general lack of colour.

Whereas Tati had to construct elaborate sets at great expense to create a high-modernist Paris that didn’t exist yet, Villeneuve was able to use Toronto’s abundant, repetitive modernist buildings to great effect in his disturbing film: the plot revolves precisely around a college professor who discovers another person (both roles are played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who resembles him exactly.

Enemy: Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) at Scarborough College (all images courtesy Vimeo.com)

2 comments

  1. Anonymous

    it is actually University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus…. not Scarborough College.

  2. Thanks for setting the record straight. In architecture, a building is often called by its 'first' name, and UTSC was indeed originally called Scarborough College.

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