Dark Canadian cities emerge in introspective new films

Culture Film

Hollywood regularly churns out movies featuring New York blown up by aliens.That’s why I have a theory that one sign of advanced popular culture is being able to create a vision of your nation in ruins. If your movies obsessively show your country in decay, it means that country has something worth saving. Of course, a city doesn’t have to be destroyed on film to enshrine it as culturally significant. Often, it is enough of a sign of social and artistic maturity to simply depict a city as alienating, brutal, and grim.

Canada has been slow to deem itself good enough to be worth depicting our country as ugly or nightmarish on film. Toronto hosted Pacific Rim’s monster mash and Vancouver’s Lion’s Gate Bridge collapsed in Final Destination 5, but both were dressed in American drag. Two new Canadian films, Denis Villeneuve’s Toronto-set Enemy and Carl Bessai’s Vancouver-set No Clue, both currently in theatres, let our cities luxuriate in their own unique dissipation.

No Clue, starring Brent Butt, is a spoof of film noir. Butt stars as Leo, a salesman mistaken for a private eye by the mysterious Kyra (Amy Smart). Leo, panting over this femme fatale, allows Kyra to hire him to find her missing brother. Though he won’t win any acting awards, Butt ably carries the movie, assisted by David Koechner as Leo’s loutish best friend. Butt also wrote the nimble, funny script, maximizing his comic persona as a smart-mouthed bumbler, while honouring noir and crime film conventions.

The film transcends broad parody thanks to Carl Bessai, the indie director known for darker fare such as Emile. Vancouver as the “city of glass” is nowhere in No Clue, with Bessai focusing on the pre-Expo ’86 brick city of dripping neon and rain-slicked alleys. There are sweeping shots of Vancouver’s streetscape and it looks as grand and menacing as Roman Polanski’s Los Angeles in the 1974 film Chinatown. Vancouver arises from the spoof as one of the great, lost cities of film noir.

While No Clue shows Vancouver as a gritty city of intrigue, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy portrays Toronto as magnificently ill. Villeneuve has frosted Toronto over with filters of cigarette-stain yellow or frigid blue, creating a bleak, smoggy dystopia. In this adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, Jake Gyllenhaal masterfully assumes the dual role of meek history professor Adam and actor Anthony, vigorous doppelganger. Adam teaches the history of dictatorship and acts like it’s 1984, living a morose and lonely life, detached even from his beautiful girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). When he breaks his routine and rents a movie, he discovers Anthony in the background, smiling blandly and looking exactly like Adam. This begins a toxic and horrific enmeshing of these men’s lives.

Where No Clue is unabashedly Canadian, with its Tim Horton’s cups and gun control quips, Enemy is more chillily international in the style of David Cronenberg. We are still unmistakably in Toronto, and even see a majestic and bizarre dream of a giant spider crawling past the CN Tower. Set to Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ dominant score, Villeneuve endlessly displays the city’s distinct skyline and sprawling housing developments. In the nebulous suburbs of Mississauga, Villeneuve makes fantastic use of that city’s artistic Absolute World twin condo towers. Anthony lives with his pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) in one of these twisted towers, and their apartment becomes the centre of the men’s doubling games.

Don’t go into Enemy expecting a conventional thriller. The film is insular and full of private symbols, and its closing scene pulls us toward Kafkaesque surrealism. While the enigmatic ending will cause shock and confusion, the centrality of Toronto to what Villeneuve is up to is clear and reaffirmed by a credit scene of Toronto’s skyscrapers as seen from a giant spider’s eye level. Toronto is shown as a city in search of identity, haunted by secret lives.

Enemy and No Clueare very different films, but they unite in their re-establishment of the Canadian city on screen. We don’t yet have aliens nuking Parliament Hill, but No Clue and Enemy suggest Canadians are looking at themselves with more confidence as well as more skepticism. Enemy and No Clue are as high quality as anything pumped out by Hollywood, so escape your culture cringe and go see them both.