I’m not quite sure where I stand on The Double, an adaptation of a Dostoyevsky novella of the same name. At times aspects of the film felt frustratingly half-baked but it somehow held together fairly well, delivered frequent laughs and featured fantastic performances from both its lead and supporting casts.
Set in a world not too aesthetically dissimilar to the one found in Gilliam’s Brazil and Welles’ The Trial, Richard Ayoade’s follow-up to his 2010 debut Submarine, opens with a masterful medium close-up that focuses on Simon’s (Jesse Eisenberg’s) face, lit by flickering and alternating primary colours with shadows obscuring the opposing sides of his face in a seemingly random fashion. This sequence, despite its beauty, highlights my first major issue with the film; it has an over-reliance on pointless and obvious symbolism that does nothing but look pretty and fill time. We get that the juxtaposition of two extremes of personality will be one of the main themes, and we get that a doppelganger will be introduced into the film shortly (it’s in the title), so why Ayoade feels the need to mirror this sequence throughout the film constantly is beyond me. He’d get a free pass if it only happened once or twice (who doesn’t like a little bit of style to go along with their substance?), but the fact that Ayoade relentlessly shoehorns the motif into a ton of later scenes even though the underlying meaning is so obvious that it doesn’t require any sort of repetition warrants a mention.
My second major problem (which thankfully does not persist throughout the entire film) comes in the following scenes. Ayoade iterates, then reiterates, and reiterates over and over again that Simon is nothing special. He’s awkward, soft-spoken and underappreciated by his co-workers; nobody really notices him and nothing ever goes his way. Where the film loses me is Ayoade’s decision to focus solely on this point, hammering it home relentlessly during the first chunk of the film, and in the process irritating me no end. It left me begging for the story to progress beyond the overlong introduction of our protagonist, something that was achieved proficiently just 5 minutes into the runtime. Thankfully, as the film kicks into full gear with the formal introduction of Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) and James (also Eisenberg), Ayoade eases up a fair bit on the heavy-handed iteration of Simon’s personality and begins crafting something quite special.
During the following hour or so that the film really comes into its own and it’s here that the masterful use of lighting and cinematography hinted at in the film’s opening sequence becomes more prominent. A few particularly impressive sequences feature the juxtaposition of shaky handheld camera techniques and Steadicam-esque still shots as we move through different characters’ points of view to still mid shots that continue the flow of the sequences with occasional non-fluid, jerky mid shots that convey our protagonists frustrated emotions as though they are bursting out of him and visually manifesting themselves on the screen.
Despite the heavy reliance on various cinematographic techniques, in many ways Ayoade’s feature is more akin to a play than a film; it operates within a few very clearly defined acts, is very heavily influenced by the works of the Absurdists, and the use of lighting shares far more in common with theatre than what one has come to expect from conventional filmic fare. Unfortunately this is at the sacrifice of building a larger filmic universe wherein the action takes place. Many interesting ideas are introduced and never fully fleshed out or explored: for instance, a character called the Colonel who seems to be this film’s Godot (although we do see him in the flesh, albeit briefly) is occasionally mentioned throughout but adds nothing to the film beyond embodying the “big brother” character in this dystopic universe. We never see him pulling any strings or enforcing the systems of control one might expect to be in play; instead he’s just there, serving no purpose other than existing. I’d rather this character was expanded upon or just left out entirely instead of arriving undercooked, offering promise but never delivering.
While the plot is solid and the script is (mostly) well thought-out, the film truly shines when all its auxiliary materials are on display. Of particular note are inconceivably hilarious performances from Wallace Shawn as Simon/James’s boss, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascus as a surly janitor, and Chris O’Dowd’s film-stealing role as a nurse. On top of the great cameos, we are also treated to a few short scenes from television serials unique to this universe. These sequences closely resemble Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a program Ayoade had previously worked on, and are a treat for any fans of that show and its unique brand of humour. Ayoade strikes a great balance between the use of these incidentals and maintaining the overarching plot of the film, never detracting from the action while preventing the film from overly indulging in the often intentionally infuriating situations Simon is placed in.
As a counterpoint to the darkly comedic The Double I’d suggest checking out Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, a film that will be released in Australia later this year that is ironically also based on a novel called “The Double” (although this time by José Saramago). The film shares The Double’s basic premise however, unlike Ayoade’s film it has a more serious, rather than comedic, tone. Villeneuve’s visual symbolism never feels cheap or overused; close-ups are utilized to convey pure, unadulterated emotion, rather than to solely serve stylistic decisions – a craft often lost in the muddled world of modern independent film-making where everyone seems to be trying to carve out a unique visual mode instead of first mastering the roots of solid, robust filmmaking. That’s not to say that The Double is unsuccessful as a film, I just felt that often times decisions were made to maintain a particular aesthetic at the sacrifice of actual storytelling.
While I’m still a bit iffy about my true feelings on the film (I’m giving it a soft recommend because there’s enough here to raise it above the average film-going experience but in a different mood I could have easily gone with a not recommended) I do know one thing for sure – I enjoyed Enemy a damn sight more than The Double and if you only have the option to see one doppelganger flick this year I’d urge you to pick the former.
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