57th BFI London Film Festival – The Double

Posted October 21st, 2013 by Thomas Grimshaw

the-double

For a film about dopplegangers it’s fairly apt that Richard Ayoade’s second feature The Double is drenched in a pervasive sense of cinematic deja-vu. A vast improvement on his twee ode to precocious teenagers – Submarine – Ayoade has dug deeper into his box of cinematic reference points, but rather than lifting them wholesale, here the allusions and gestures are interwoven with a deft slight-of hand. Jettisoning the ‘nouvelle vague,’ this time his concerns are far more literate, riffing on Tati, Kaurismäki (Aki), Lynch and most obviously, Gilliam.

The film is set in a dystopian world of crumbling, archaic machinery, mindless bureaucracy and ever-present monochrome-glare lighting. Our ‘hero’, Simon James played by Jesse Eisenberg, works for a nameless organisation that appears to make quick business of doing very little, or at least anything that is remotely useful, instead the company seems to exist entirely for its own bureaucratic purposes, with nothing in the way of tangible output. From of the off, things are looking particularly awful for Simon; his dementia-suffering mother hates him, people can’t remember who he is, the complexities of modern life seem determined to thwart his every move (very Tati-esque) and he’s in love with fellow employee Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who treats him with something bordering on total apathy. As a result, Simon has become invisible to the world,  leaving no impact on anyone or anything he encounters, powerless to halt his spiralling decline.

Things change dramatically when he spies his doppleganger James Simon, also played by Eisenberg, entering the apartment block opposite. Despite being an exact physical facsimile (they even wear the same suit), James is everything Simon isn’t; brash, cool, confident and witty. Very quickly James begins to take over Simon’s life; his job, his home, with what appears to be the sole (soul) purpose of wiping Simon from the world once and for all.

Most of the fun is derived from watching how far Ayoade and co-writer Ari Korine (Harmony’s brother) are willing to go in order to push Simon to the limits of his sanity, with every action, comment and decision he makes scrutinised and condemned by a world seemingly out to crush him. When James appears, Simon’s damnation is increased tenfold, having to now compare himself to his popular, charismatic double; who steals his ideas and within a week has slept with almost every woman Simon knows or cares about. It’s a testament to Eisenberg’s performance that he’s able to keep the characters so distinct, with Simon a call back to his earlier nebbish performances in films such as Roger Dodger, whilst James feels like an extension of his role as Mark Zuckerberg. The rest of the cast deliver strong committed performances, all of them echoing the same sinister, contradictory tone, so that the oppressiveness of the work is all encompassing. The only criticism is that the film turns into a roll call of comedy actors and Submarine cameos, though seeing Chris Morris in anything is always a welcome surprise.

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As with the performances, the control that Ayoade has over his mise-en-scene is very admirable, creating a complete world of inky black interiors cast in orange lighting. Every exterior is set at night and any daytime action takes place in oppressively decorated, windowless interiors, so that the whole film feels like an eternal nighttime. Like Gilliam with Brazil, there is a strong emphasis on artifice, however whereas Gilliam opted for excess offering up of slapstick, Fellini-esque versions of the near future, with cables, cogs and springs spewing out of every plug socket and panel, Ayoade is more interested in reducing his aesthetic, focusing on brutalist, smoke filled courtyards, or barren monochrome train stations. In doing so, the visuals, although always interesting and eerily beautiful, never detract from the existential dilemma at the film’s core.

The film isn’t without criticism – for example some of Ayoade’s wackier ideas are tonally off kilter from the dark humour displayed throughout the rest of the film. There is one cameo in particular that feels too much like fan-service for those who loved Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. Also Simon’s all too consuming crush on Hannah and the melancholic sweetness this brings at the film’s conclusion is made ever more ridiculous by the fact that she reveals herself early on as a self-involved brat, thus rendering Simon’s affections as both pathetic and also a little one dimensional.

Minor criticisms aside, Ayoade should be applauded for upping his game after the acclaimed and popular Submarine, bothering to try something fresh and somewhat original. It doesn’t break new ground, but it has a distinctive vision and he exhibits a preternatural control when it comes to finding cohesion amongst the disparate elements of the film.

 

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