“It’s terrible to be alone too much”
Comically dry like director Richard Ayoade‘s debut Submarine, his sophomore effort takes more than a few steps towards an even more arid realm of complete existentialist surrealism. Adapted by he and Avi Korine, The Double brings Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s novella to the big screen with a surefire confidence in its visual form and an eccentric comedy that should go a long way towards securing “The IT Crowd” starrer as a permanent, unique voice in contemporary cinema. There is a definite stylistic kinship to his first film that pairs well with this one’s descent into a psychological conflict of identity as Simon James’ (Jesse Eisenberg) entire existence shatters with the introduction of a confidently superior doppelgänger named James Simon to his every waking second.
Eisenberg is a fantastic casting coup to me because of his faux intellectual Squid and the Whale character Walt Berkman’s memorable line describing Franz Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis as being “Kafkaesque”. This film is very much in line with that author’s works and deals with the similar monotony of statistical bureaucracy seen in the likes of Brazil and Bartleby. The comparisons can be made right from the start too as Simon finds himself sitting on the train minding his own business when a gentleman comes over to demand his seat. Confused and bewildered by the request as the camera zooms out to show no one else is on the car, the scene’s meticulous orchestration is but the first of many to bring this off-kilter, personal dystopia to life.
The security officer at Simon’s work (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) refuses to acknowledge he’s ever seen him before despite working there seven years while manager Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn) believes he’s a brand new employee able to mentor/babysit his rebellious daughter Melanie (Yasmin Paige). His coworker “friend” Harris (Noah Taylor) is indifferent to him unless he needs his work done and the only person who does notice he’s alive—the copy girl he’s infatuated with named Hannah (Mia Wasikowska)—barely bothers. Some broad comedy enters too with Simon trying to exit elevators despite them opening when he needs them closed and vice versa while quick cuts mix with fast-paced extended takes to portray the oppressive size of his workplace full of elderly men in cubicles.
The film becomes a methodical exercise in futility as Simon wades through life without an assertive bone in his body let alone the courage to say two words to the woman he loves. He hides behind corners to catch glimpses of Hannah, peers at her through his telescope from the apartment building across the street, and pathetically runs to her complex’s trash room to catch the ripped up bits of drawings she throws down the chute. Unappreciated and invisible, it’s the friendly wave of a gentleman jumping off a ledge to his death that shakes him from his doldrums. The suicide detectives (Jon Korkes and Craig Roberts) tell him it’s a common occurrence, though, and proceed to set odds he’ll probably be next.
But instead of ridding the world of one Simon, fate/mental imbalance/sheer artistic lunacy decides to add another. James becomes everything Simon wants to be, taking credit for all his work despite not even knowing what they do and garnering the attention of every attractive woman in their path—including Hannah. Simon’s alter ego becomes his greatest champion too if only to steal his every intellectual thought so he may pair it with an already gregarious demeanor. Other people start noticing Simon due to his resemblance to James, but being seen and called Stanley might be worse than getting ignored altogether. And just when the two metaphysical twins appear to be partnering up, James’ plans to takeover Simon’s life make themselves known.
Ayoade has crafted a smart, high concept puzzler with a keen sense of comedic timing and a great cast of familiar faces—try and spot Rade Serbedzija, Sally Hawkins, Cathy Moriarty, and more. Each frame drowns in an artificial blackness with harsh metals and steampunk/obsolete technological amalgams used as high-tech office systems. Sly commentary on the doubling is brought to our attention with Simon’s constant trips to Hannah’s floor for one copy of his paperwork while the skin and bones facsimile walking around inside his life ends up not as autonomous as a Xerox sheet. They share a connection that Ayoade exposes through violent rage and a very precise outburst of frustration once Simon finally decides to wrestle back control of his existence.
Shawn, Taylor, and the other periphery characters flawlessly mimic the tone of the cold, drab world in which they reside. Things are very matter-of-fact—almost stilted—as they move along a predestined line from point A to B and back again ad infinitum. Wasikowska continues her stellar work as the requisite angelic-faced romantic interest, toeing the line between this pseudo manufactured world and the one of isolated depression responding to it where Simon lives. And while I worried Eisenberg’s cultivated pretension would derail the wonderful things Ayoade did in Submarine, I was pleasantly surprised to see how perfectly attuned to this character he was. Both the cool James and the pushover Simon come to life with the straight-faced wit necessary to ensure this unavoidably divisive work remains far from mainstream mundanity.
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival