The Double (London Film Festival 2013)
Early word for The Double had me scratching my head: Richard Ayoade directing an adaptation of a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel, starring Jesse Eisenberg in two roles, co-written by Harmony Korine’s brother. Throw in some cult hero cameos with Chris Morris and Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, and it’s clear Ayoade is sailing away from the light comedy of Submarine. In fact, the Dostoyevsky influence proves to be a bit of a red herring – The Double is a hilarious, Kafkaesque horror with heavy nods to Polanski, Lynch and Gilliam.
Eisenberg’s main role is as Simon James, a meek office worker with an escalating identity crisis. Simon’s ID card won’t scan and the security guard doesn’t recognise him. (“You’ve seen me every day for seven years!” “That can’t be true – I don’t work weekends.”) More painful is a non-relationship with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), positioned as the girl of his dreams who forgets his name.
Now, here’s where the Avi Korine co-write makes more sense, considering his only writing credit is for the underrated Mister Lonely – a surreal dip into the world of professional lookalikes haunted by inadequacies. The Double takes a more literal approach when Simon James is gobsmacked when his doppelganger, James Simon, steps into the workplace to much admiration. In accordance with the nightmare, no one can spot the similarities, even though Eisenberg plays both parts without any visible irregularities beyond body language – which means there’s none of Paltrow’s ponytail nonsense from Sliding Doors. Worse of all, Hannah is instantly attracted to James.
Simon’s bad luck extends to faulty lifts and receiving incorrect orders from waitresses. Ayoade shapes the misfortune with heavily stylised direction that blurs edges with pitch darkness, while the sound of a train ruminates at opportune intervals. The overbearing setting mimics Gilliam’s Brazil, but with more claustrophobia and less respite.
Ayoade’s precise direction is an acquired taste and one I wished would last longer than the film’s 94 minutes. I wasn’t a fan of Submarine (partly as I read and loved Joe Dunthorne’s novel beforehand) but I admired his musical inserts that paid to French New Wave cinema in a cold, wet Swansea setting. The Double is a more obvious litany of someone’s DVD collection bearing influence. I’d love to see his Letterboxd account, as I spotted what I believe to be direct references to The Elephant Man, Chinatown and, most prominently, The Tenant.
The hypnotic clanging persists, and I could happily watch Simon wander aimlessly in The Double. However, James’ introduction adds a narrative spun through the visual comedy of James coaching Simon on how to succeed with women – a distorted reminder of Eisenberg’s early role in Roger Dodger. The eventual climax is a twist too far, but the preceding noir more than makes up for it. Eisenberg’s duality makes use of the actor’s introspective, obnoxious range, while Wasikowska is hilarious as the oblivious target of his affections.
Ayoade’s world is so delightfully idiosyncratic that J. Mascis, as a school janitor, comes across as one of the most normal characters. Ayoade’s next film can’t follow in this dystopian vein because he won’t beat it – but if he tries, I’ll be first in the queue.
The Double is part of the London Film Festival’s “Official Competition” strand. More information can be found here.
92 mins approx