Monday, 14 April 2014

The Double

Double, double toil and trouble

Despite being named after and officially an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel The Double, Richard Ayoade’s second feature film draws upon a substantial DVD collection.

The plot loosely follows the same trajectory as the Russian source material – an anxious young man failing to climb the career ladder one day encounters a man who looks exactly like him, but is more charismatic and successful – but Ayoade appropriates ideas from an array of influences, from Aki Kaurismaki to Orson Welles.

In fact, such is the prevalence of these cine-literate allusions that the film is itself – in a manner of speaking – comprised of multiple ‘doubles’ of the works referenced. But, like the doppelganger that haunts the protagonist Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg, who does a fine job distinguishing between his two characters) in the film, these doubles are not simple exact replicas of what came before, but instead are infused with Ayoade’s dark sense of humour and are given new meanings.

For instance, although he draws upon the simultaneously dreary and surreal Kafkaesque dystopia of Terry Gillian’s Brazil, the world created in The Double, with its vague metropolitan setting and disorientating blend of1950s, 1980s and contemporary technology, is distinctly Ayoade’s.

Similarly, when the director makes an explicit reference to Rear Window by having Simon watch his neighbours in their apartments though his telescope, he builds upon Hitchcock’s original premise rather than simply copying it; when, as in the famous moment in the 1954 film (, Simon sees someone looking back at him through the telescope, this time the observed man his own set of binoculars, and shockingly jumps from his room to his death.

The implication here is that the alienated society the characters live in, where business commitments and urban ennui stifle meaningful interaction, breeds people who  connect to people passively by observing them from afar, and that such disengagement ultimately leads to suicide. That suicide is a commonality in the world of the film is made explicit in one typically blackly comic scene, when the death of the man who jumped from his window is investigated by a suicide unit, established by the police to deal with the endemic in the city.

“You’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?” asks one of them of Simon. 


“...put him down as a maybe”

Simon is the victim through which we experience the disaffection of society. Lonely and frustrated by his lack of status in the office, Simon’s situation is much like Jack Lemmon’s character Baxter in The Apartment (another film in which the spectre of suicide looms large). Both protagonists also share is an office crush that occupies their thoughts even more than status-climbing, but unlike Baxter who actively pursues his love interest, Simon only worships from afar – usually it is her (Hannah, played by Mia Wasikowska) who he watches with his telescope.

By only passively observing her and the rest of the world (which, incidentally, is emerging as something of a recurring motif of Ayoade’s following the strange way the main character in his first feature Submarine would spy on his parents), Simon barely seems to exist, and is frequently ignored and forgotten by his colleagues. His doppelganger demonstrates how assertiveness succeeds in this world, as he goes about attaining everything Simon desires for himself, leaving him yet further frustrated at his apparent inability to escape from the shadows and properly exist.

At just 93 minutes in length Ayoade keeps things punchy and straightforward, and resists going into the stranger territory such source material may have invited, say, David Lynch to explore. Instead the climax becomes something of a battle of wills between Simon and his double, and perhaps the film would have benefited from exploring the more surreal possibilities of the premise.  Nonetheless The Double is an intriguing watch with a mischievous schadenfreude sense of humour, terrific soundtrack and an immaculately realised distinctive world.


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