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Film Review: The Double

The Double (2013; Directed by Richard Ayoade)

“You’re in my place,” a faceless but uncannily familiar man says to Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) as he rides a nearly empty subway car to his empty, faceless job. Simon meekly obliges anyone who attempts to take something from him, so he gives up his seat, but glances persistently back at the man who has taken “his” place. Light and shadow pulse across the frame with the motion of the subterranean train in this key initial moment of foreshadowing, and Simon sees his own image in a mounted, segmented mirror. Reflected, doubled, but fragmented, broken up.

This is the opening scene of Richard Ayoade’s The Double, and it is exquisitely, precisely shot, lighted, edited, and acted for maximum symbolic, intellectual, visual, and emotional impact. Practically every sequence that follows this first representative one is similarly flawless in its highly-charged visual exactitude. This is a film that could exclusively provide frames as fodder for @OnePerfectShot for months to come. It the-double-postermay be a long time before you see another film as masterfully, completely controlled in the totality of its mise-en-scène as The Double; even auteurish stylists like Terrence Malick or Stanley Kubrick occasionally take a break from composing motion art to point a camera at an actor and let them talk. Ayoade is on an Ingmar Bergman-level visual trip here, but the The Double is not merely artfully shot but also accurately acted and possessed with an inspired black tragicomic sensibility. It is, in an often-misapplied term, brilliant.

The narrative, from a script by Ayoade and Avi Korine, is drawn from Fyodor Dostoyesvky’s novel of the same name, and the plots are basically the same even while the details differ greatly. Simon is a low-level cubicle drone in a dour corporate office run by a distant, unglimpsed authority figure called The Colonel (James Fox). The construction of his spartan, drained existence owes a deep dystopian debt to Franz Kafka (especially as visualized by Orson Welles) as well as to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, though one gets the sense that Simon would give his right arm for the unpredictable bursts of whimsy that characterized the latter imagined world. He’s intelligent and hard-working but his efforts, and indeed his existence, go pretty much unnoticed by everyone, from his boss (Wallace Shawn) to the cute copy room girl that he likes (Mia Wasikowska) to the co-worker (Noah Taylor) who casually calls him a “non-person”. His 2/3rds-senile mother (Phyllis Somerville) only notices him on occasion, and then it’s to call him a massive disappointment.

Simon’s awkward loneliness has creepy undertones, especially as concerns his nocturnal surveillance of the copy girl Hannah, who dwells in the apartment block across from his own stark digs; he even collects her discarded red-hued etchings from the trash chute. One night, however, he watches through his telescope lens (he gazes outwards in his fantasy-leisure time after spending the rest of his life gazing inwards) as the man in the flat above Hannah’s waves at him and then jumps to his death. Soon afterwards, a new employee starts at the office and moves into the vacant apartment: James Simon (Eisenberg also), a dead ringer for Simon, though only the doppelgängers themselves seem to notice the resemblance. James is confident and likable, and after a brief period of befriending and trying to aid in Simon’s efforts to get out of himself, this double begins to rise to successes in the professional, social, and sexual spheres that Simon can only wish for but never achieve. Simon doesn’t have much and aspires to only a little more, but James seems intent on taking all of it for himself.

Mere synopsis and description cannot do The Double requisite justice. Ayoade’s shot composition is repeatedly impressive, but is never simply about technical showmanship: it’s firmly at the service of the artistic, thematic vision. The nods to Kafka and Gilliam in the production design coalesce into Simon’s hilarious interactions with the workplace bureaucracy, which gradually erase his professional existence with curt, polite absolutism. The seamless conversations between Simon and James are also rapid-fire dark comedy, with James instructing Simon on the many small things he can do to evade giving off the impression of homosexuality (“Defence wins championships,” he quips). Eisenberg is superb in the split role, nailing Simon’s insular instincts as assuredly as James’s devil-may-care outgoing nature. He even seems to wear each character’s identical wardrobe differently: Simon’s suit is just a little bit too big, underscoring his awkward solicitude, but in the case of James, the mis-fit of his clothes emphasizes his casual personality and libertine activities.

There is a strong, implied critique of corporate capitalism’s erasure of individual agency at work in The Double, in contrast to Dostoyevsky’s more historically proximal critique of Tsarist Russia’s vast, dehumanizing official bureaucracy (a fleeting illuminated cross is a formless stab at faith, quite contrary to Dostoyesvky’s orthodox Christianity). But The Double, its setting steadfastly archaic in a way that makes it seem more like an alternate past than a dire future, is metaphorically contained. Its symbolic implications are compellingly imparted in images of duplication, containment, and stagnation, but they reach no further than the textual boundaries of the film frame. Ayoade has constructed a potent, focused package of technical and aesthetic virtuosity that scratches at the gates of that hoary, indeterminate realm of what we tend to call “genius”. That focus, however, is ever directed internally, just as Simon’s is. This may not be a criticism but only an observation. The Double is a tremendous work of cinema, wherever its focused gaze is directed.

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