In March 2020, I started reading Marie NDiaye’s novel My Heart Hemmed In about a week before Texas went into its first lockdown. It was a stunning book, beautiful and discomfiting, about a woman, Nadia, who suddenly and inexplicably becomes othered by her community. Friends, neighbors, amenable ex-lovers, strangers, her pupils: overnight, she becomes a pariah to them, something different and perhaps even obscene. As I was on the bus on the way home from work, not realizing that it would be the last time I would be taking that route, I was reading through a passage about Nadia also taking public transportation, and her growing awareness of being watched and observed, and that paranoid feeling surged through me as the eyes of my fellow commuters began to dart from face to face, seeking any sign of illness or contagion. It was a distinctly surreal experience that I do not recall fondly. NDiaye’s writings seemed, based on my own admittedly limited cultural knowledge, very French; Heart focused heavily not just on the feeling of being ostracized, but also on the confusion of it, and through narrative sleight of hand managed to let the reader know that there was something about her situation that Nadia unconsciously understood but forced beneath the surface of her conscious mind. Despite her constant claims that she couldn’t imagine the reason for her situation, the reader always knew that she was more aware than she let on. Although the novel upon which A Perfect Enemy is based, Cosmétique de l’ennemi, is Belgian (albeit written in French), the summaries of it which I’ve managed to locate indicate a similar self-deception at the original novel’s core, which does not (forgive the pun) translate to the big screen, nor am I certain it could have translated.
Successful and renowned Polish architect Jeremiasz Angust (Tomasz Kot) has just finished giving a lecture in Paris about his philosophy of design. In so doing, he quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (probably best known in the Western Hemisphere as the author of The Little Prince): “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is tied into his desire to design spaces which are to the benefit not of an aristocratic class, but to the societal underclasses, who deserve beauty as much as their supposed betters. En route to the airport to return home, he offers to share a cab with a rain-soaked young Dutch woman who gives her name as Texel Textor (Athena Strates). Despite the objections of the cab driver, they also turn back to retrieve Texel’s suitcase, which causes both of them to miss their flights. As they each wait for the next available flight, Jeremiasz politely attempts to rebuff Texel’s attempts to engage him in further conversation, especially once her interest in him is further aroused by the fact that he had designed the very airport in which they are currently stranded. He finally gives in to her begging to hear her out as she tells him stories about her childhood, promising one such tale about how she killed a classmate in her youth. As they adjourn to a very nice lounge, the miniature diorama of the airport shows two tiny figures inside painted to look just like Jeremiasz and Texel, in an otherwise monochromatic white sea.
Texel tells three stories. The first is about her disgust with the sound of her stepfather’s eating as a child and how her own rejection of food due to textural issues led to her being punished by mixing up offal and other unappetizing food remnants to feed to the family’s cats, but forced herself to eat that mixture and discovered she loved it. The second story is about her friendship with another girl from school, who was much more well-off and of whom the poor Texel was deeply envious, even going so far as to destroy the wealthier girl’s toys out of spite. One night she prayed for the girl to die while stabbing a doll, and learned the following day at school that she had died in the night. Between these stories, Texel asks Jeremiasz about his wife, noting his wedding band, but he reveals nothing other than to say that he still loves her, which Texel doubts, noting that when someone loves another person, they can’t help but talk about them more than Jeremiasz is willing to speak of his bride. Jeremiasz says that Texel can’t possibly think that her prayers killed her classmate, but Texel tells her final story, about seeing a beautiful woman in a French cemetery, standing over a sculpture of a mourning woman that looks almost just like her. She falls madly in love with the woman instantly and pursues her, much to the woman’s dismay, and although Texel catches up with the woman and even knocks her down, the mourner manages to get away. Texel spends years trying to find her again, and when she does and realizes the woman does not recognize her from that day in the graveyard, she weasels her way into the woman’s home, only for the woman to eventually recognize Texel’s mad laughter, and then a tragedy occurs.
Although there’s not much to spoil here for a first time viewer and I’m not giving this film a recommendation, I’ll still refrain from sharing too much about how Texel and Jeremiasz were connected prior to their “chance” meeting, although an astute reader may have already figured it out. That’s by far the least interesting part of the film. Maybe I’m simply still haunted by Hereditary, but I had really hoped that the recurring image of the tiny figures of Texel and Jeremiasz appearing in the model airport in the transitions between scenes would be a larger and more literal factor in the plot, and that perhaps Texel was some kind of avenging spirit or witch come to force Jeremiasz to confront or reckon with something from his past. I’m not saying that’s not what happens in the movie, but, again, I don’t want to ruin the ending or the journey should you find yourself with access to this film and time to kill. The twist isn’t telegraphed necessarily, but it is foreshadowed heavily enough that you’ll probably stay a few steps ahead of the reveal. Even if that doesn’t work, what does work in the “long conversation” part of Act II are Texel’s interruptions of her own stories to ask Jeremiasz what he’s imagining when she talks about childhood poverty or elementary school buildings, and corrects his mental images, which draw on his own experiences, with clearer and more specific ones that accurately reflect her past. I love movies about memory, and this is an interesting and dynamic way to confront, inspect, and visualize the imperfections of memory and imagination in a visual way. There’s also a striking scene in the final act of the film that’s evoked by the movie’s poster image, but to say more about it would give too much away.
Unfortunately, where A Perfect Enemy falls flat is in the performances. Although there’s something indescribably “off” about Marta Nieto, who plays the object of Texel’s affections, it’s Kot who delivers one of the strangest performances I’ve ever seen here, and not in a good way. At first I thought it might have been a language barrier issue and was fully prepared to, on this film’s behalf, argue that it might have been better to allow Kot to speak his native Polish and subtitle the movie instead of forcing him to speak English throughout, but I watched an English-language interview with him, and he speaks the language fluently. I cannot imagine what prompted the acting choice to deliver every line of Jeremiasz’s dialogue so stiltedly; as a result of it, Kot delivers a performance that is—and I hesitate to use this term without sufficient reason but there are truly no other or more accurate descriptors—Wiseaunian. I don’t think that Kot is a bad actor necessarily, but it’s such a huge distraction that one could almost (but not quite) overlook what an amazing performance Strates is bringing to the table. She manages to portray innocence, madness, and clarity of purpose in what could have easily been a textbook standard manic pixie nightmare girl, and I really look forward to seeing her in future roles. I’m also fascinated by director Kike Maíllo’s cinematic eye; there are a lot of breathtaking images here (most of which were included in the film’s extremely well-crafted trailer), and I can’t wait to see him take the helm of another thriller that’s less hampered by a familiar narrative twist and a wooden performance from its lead.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond