Richard Ayoade is the UK’s most cinephilic filmmaker. While he clearly possesses a raw talent for the craft as well, his playful early efforts in film make him something altogether more volatile and exciting. His second feature, The Double, sometimes loses itself in a world of references to other filmmakers, but it amounts to something gripping and unique enough to already have me eagerly anticipating the director’s next film.
The Double is based on Fyodor Dostoyesky’s novel of the same name. A lonely office worker Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), marooned in the same job in the same company for the past seven years, becomes infatuated with a pretty, equally lonely office worker, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), but is so socially inept that he’s helpless to communicate with her, as he is with anyone else.
One day, a confident young hotshot, James (also Eisenberg), starts working at the office, who immediately endears himself to his co-workers, to Simon, to Helen, and to countless other women. The catch is that Mr Hotshot looks exactly like Simon. Simon and James’ relationship gets off to a good start, but it’s not long before James starts taking over Simon’s remaining shreds of life, slowly pushing him to obscurity and madness.
Ayoade approaches this well-trodden premise with style over substance. The Double is a cinematic orchestra; the absurdist melodrama is constantly punctuated by a musical score that ranges from classical to otherworldly synth. Visually, it’s a weird and wonderful bag of tricks that draws on some of the finest, most Kafkaesque auteurs. The setting is a Gilliam-like bureaucratic dystopia, certain shots are straight out of Hitchcock, while others are pure Polanski.
The Double particularly recalls one of my all-time favourite films, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. Both plots deal with themes of persecution, doppelgangers and loneliness, and certain moments are virtually identica; the double waving back at Simon from the building opposite, Simon being served the wrong drink in the cafe, the POV shot of the protagonist’s leering persecutors looking to get their hands on him. Eisenberg even looks like The Tenant’s hapless hero, played by Polanski. It’s no coincidence that Polanski made a doomed effort to bring The Double to screen in the 90s, starring John Travolta and Isabelle Adjani.
The Double is a visual feast. So much so in fact, that it leaves little room for any of the lead characters to develop, confining them to the role of cogs in Ayoade’s spectacular cinematic machine. Visually, Ayoade explores Simon’s loneliness by pushing him to the edges of the screen and making him appear lost in his nightmarish cuboid office, but verbally he reduces him to wimpering clichés along the lines of “I’m so lost and lonely and invisible, I feel like you could push your hands straight through me if you wanted to”.
Where Ayoade’s script lacks profundity, it compensates in brilliant moments of black comedy that paint a picture of a weird, off-kilter world; a world where two suicide watchmen casually jot Simon down as a ‘Maybe’, and staff and residents at a nursing home are inexplicably armed with lethal weapons. The murky visual palette, occasionally broken up by Argento-esque saturations of colour, enhances the oddness. It’s just a shame that, as with the plot and characters, we never explore the world in much depth.
Eisenberg is well fitted to his dual role. He absorbs every door shutting in Simon’s face and every veiled insult pushed his way with quiet bewilderment. As James, he draws on his own performance as Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network: still nerdy, but with a self-assured swagger. The supporting cast – including Noah Taylor, Wallace Shawn and Cathy Moriarty – do a great job of filling up the hostile, comical world.
The big letdown is Wasikowska’s character Hannah. She is supposed to have some unconsummated affinity with Simon through her loneliness, and the film attempts to convey this as we see her moping around her flat and smudging the window with her bloodied hand like some primitive call for help. These poignant moments don’t match up to Hannah when she opens her mouth unfortunately, when she merely comes across as stuck-up. This makes Simon’s goal of wooing her seem pointless, and you hope that maybe a less-glamorous-but-nice girl will come along in classic Hollywood fashion and rescue him.
The Double clearly draws on other films out of a love for the medium. Ayoade is a director experimenting with his craft, and having a merry old time doing it. The Double is a bit too intertextual for anyone to start using the term ‘Ayoade-esque’ (despite the term having a great ring to it) any time soon, and its overstated style only skims the surface of its psychoanalytical subject matter, but it does all add up to make one of the most superficial, odd and watchable films of recent years.
The Double is out on Blu-ray and DVD now.
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