Keeping its cards close to its chest, almost until it’s too late, A Perfect Enemy is one of those low-budget Euro-thriller co-productions that also (eventually) makes some sense of its transborder elements, particularly its cast.
There are only really two people, in a “starring” sense, in any case. The Polish actor Tomasz Kot you might know from Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. He plays Jeremiasz Angust, a onetime high-flier architect who’s cashed in the status jobs and become even more of a somebody by taking on work that’s strictly humanitarian – hospitals in Rwanda, and the like, he tells the audience at the Ted-style talk he’s giving as the film opens.
And Athena Strates, the excellent young South African actor who’s largely an unknown, here playing the oddly named Texel Textor (get used to it, you’ll hear the name a lot), a livewire who jumps into Jeremiasz’s taxi as he’s on the way to the airport and then bugs him like crazy for the rest of the film.
Her name, she says, means weaver of words (Tex as in textile, as in text), and she is soon weaving them around him, to his irritation, telling the story of her young, tragic life – poverty, abusive stepdad etc – before things take a sinister turn. She killed her best friend, she insists, with a bit of childhood voodoo. Before finally answering the irritated Jeremiasz’s unasked question – “what’s this all to do with me?” – by shifting her story onto territory he recognises.
Blood-red blotches, meanwhile, seem to be appearing on the architectural model of the airport, situated in the VIP lounge where all this storytelling is taking place. It turns out Jeremiasz, in his previous life, designed the airport too.
A cold and sinister mystery unfolds, with a slightly unsettling atmosphere, emphasised by the two characters – the humanitarian successful self-contained Jeremiasz and the punkish, young (maybe 20?) and over-sharing Texel. The actors, too, seem to be slightly at odds, working in slightly different registers, as if they were in different movies, perhaps. Add in the odd bit of jarring writing where too much exposition is delivered by the wrong person in the wrong way and it almost feels like what’s playing out is a drama that’s simply not very good.
I was wrong about that. I was also wrong in a whodunit sense, believing I’d made sense of Texel’s story and how, as her murderous youthful antics gave way to later tales of mayhem in Paris, she fitted in to Jeremiasz’s life. Wrong.
So I had another go at making sense of it all. Wrong again. And, I think, wrong one more time just for good measure. But then I’m not one of those people who try to work out who dun it (thrillers cheat too often anyway). You might get there ahead of me, though I did get there in the end, but right near the end.
As well as the slightly jarring note struck by the actors’ performances, director Kike Maíllo and talented upcoming DP Rita Noriega keeps things visually cool, which seems odd considering the subject matter. Sonically it’s a stately, measured, delicate affair too, Alex Baranowski’s score picking up the theme. Here’s a film that doesn’t want to give away too much. To the point almost where an audience could be forgiven for not investing too much? Your call.
The answers, when they start coming, keep coming, one revelation flipping the narrative this way and the next one flipping it off in another direction. In the end it works, in the way one of the more thriller-ish episodes of The Twilight Zone (or Tales of Mystery and Imagination) used to work, in an “Aah, I see,” sort of way.
Keep the critical thoughts at bay, in other words, until A Perfect Enemy has given up its goodies in its final, frantic, narrative splurge.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021