Richard Ayoade gained a cult following with his 2011 debut feature, Submarine, a quirky, coming-of-age film, the humour of which arose from the discrepancy between the precocious unreliable narrator’s language and illusions and the reality of his banal life in Wales.
In Ayoade’s clever adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Double, there is no reality, just the unreliable narrator, a nobody whose life is turned upside down when his double enters his life. Complex and at times cryptic, with a plot as bleak as its wonderfully evocative atmosphere (both somewhat reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), The Double is more of a platform for Ayoade’s considerable talent than a particularly enjoyable film.
A brilliant, but overlooked and exploited clerk in a dingy office, Simon James’ (played by the wonderful Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) life becomes unbearable when a devious doppelganger named James Simon (Eisenberg) takes over his life. At first, Simon James befriends the newcomer, but he quickly learns that his doppelganger cannot be trusted. Simon becomes frustrated when no one seems to notice that the usurper is his identical twin, a fact that is easy to overlook due to the difference in their personalities.
Whereas Simon James is a lonely, introvert, unable to summon up the courage to ask out the photocopy girl, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), or take credit for his contributions to the business, James Simon is an ingratiating charmer, a ladies’ man, and an ambitious cheat. He thinks nothing of stealing Simon James’ reports and taking credit for them or for seducing Hannah. When Simon James does finally confront their boss (Wallace Shawn) he is already in the throes of a nervous beak down and cannot express himself. The confrontation backfires, continuing Simon James’ downward spiral. Does he have it in him to settle the score?
The Double is full of references to other films the most obvious, perhaps, is when the two colleagues go to a diner for a chat. When the waitress tells James Simon that is order cannot be served, he breaks down the order until he gets what he wants in a scene reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces.
But Ayoade, as both Writer and Director, is not dependent on references and comes up with many original touches. In fact, understanding the cryptic ending (which comes full circle to the opening scene) is entirely dependent on your having caught a throw away line in the first scene. So, pay attention to the conversation between two investigators at the scene of a suicide that Simon James witnesses at the start of the film. Then watch closely when, at a funeral scene, Simon James notices that when his nose bleeds, so does that of his double.
Jesse Eisenberg’s adept dual performances are reason alone to see the film. It cannot be easy acting opposite your very different self, let alone remembering which character you are playing and staying in character. The other reason to see the film is the atmosphere of the office and shabby apartment block where Simon James, James Simon and Hannah live in monk’s cells. It’s late 19th century Russia transported to 1950s Stalinist Russia, decorated in the sickly colours and tones described in the novel.
Like Submarine, however, The Double, grows tiresome with a combination of the predictable downward spiral, some cryptic turning points and the stylised and unsympathetic characters. Ayoade is out to impress and the result is a self-indulgent film that doesn’t quite touch the heart in the same way it tickle the film buff or challenge intellect.