British actor/writer Richard Ayoade follows up his much-acclaimed directing debut Submarine with an eerie, disquietingly piece of Lynchian surrealism. Set at the exact opposite of Submarine's irreverent celebration of growing up weird, The Double shares with it Mr. Ayoade's uncanny way of connecting with his actors to bring out the essence of the characters he gravitates to - outsiders yearning to fit a world that seems to reject them the more they try - and his precise determination to create entire universes that will help us see the world through their eyes.
For The Double, the director and his co-writer Avi Korine (brother of Harmony) take Russian writer Fyodor Dostoievsky's novel about a man confronted with a mirror image of himself who takes over his life, and set it at a weird intersection between Dennis Potter's fantasy takes on humdrum daily life, Terry Gilliam at his most baroquely Kafkaesque and David Lynch's "psychogenic fugue" dissociations. Taking place in a hallucinatorily haunting perpetual night straight out of Dark City via Brazil (much kudos to designer David Crank), this is the tale of the "non-person" that is Simon James, a low-level cog in a perpetual make-work machine that is tired of being overlooked yet incapable of taking the first step. A new co-worker, James Simon, shows up and, to Simon's horror, he's his exact physical double endowed with all the successful gifts of the self-made-(sales)man. Slowly but surely, James starts taking Simon's life away until, with nothing left to lose, the shy, anonymous loner takes matters in hand.
That The Double is as affecting as it is owes much to Jesse Eisenberg's impeccable, film-carrying performance, but also to the added sense of existential poignancy of Simon's fight to just be noticed as a person with thoughts and feelings in a beautifully-constructed world that has no truck for such things. Yet, despite the film fitting in easily in a long-standing tradition of British dystopias that has George Orwell's 1984 as its possible highpoint, The Double seems to lack something as its descent into surrealism gains speed in the third and final act. It's as if Mr. Ayoade allows the film to lose track of its quietly disturbing anguish, drowned in the sensory opacity of Mr. Lynch's Lost Highway, the film slowly becoming a purely technical, somewhat self-centered, exercise in universe building.
The director's determination to not offer an easy way out to the viewer, though admirably true to what's gone before, is simultaneously strangely haunting and irritatingly off-putting. It allows the dank, sickly colour palette in DP Erik Alexander Wilson's images and Mr. Crank's retro-futuristic production design to remain intriguing while keeping the ultimate solution of the mystery always out of reach, its empathy with Simon's impossible situation evaporating before it coalesces again, always just out of sight. A mystery The Double is, and one as alluring as it is infuriating; a film you can't quite dismiss but that you can't quite embrace. Maybe that's all it needs.
United Kingdom 2013
Cast Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, Cathy Moriarty, Phyllis Somerville, James Fox
Director Richard Ayoade; screenwriters Mr. Ayoade and Avi Korine; based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoievsky The Double; cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson (colour); composer Andrew Hewitt; designer James Crank; costumes Jacqueline Durran; editors Nick Fenton and Chris Dickens; producers Robin C. Fox and Amina Dasmal, Filmfour, The British Film Institute and Alcove Entertainment in co-production with Attercop Productions and MC Pictures, in association with Protagonist Pictures and Auburn Entertainment
Screened May 8th 2014 (DVD, Lisbon)