Jesse Eisenberg walks down a sparsely lit corridor next to himself in an extended tracking shot. He walks next to himself. He peers over to check how alike the man next to him is. But he hates that man. And he hates himself. The irony. In Richard Ayoade’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double, Eisenberg shows how painful self-loathing can be and how it can drive someone insane. Labyrinthine and Freudian, it grabs you by the neck and doesn’t let go.
Simon James lives his existence epitomized by that song in Chicago “Mister Cellophane”, to an extent where his dystopian, The Crowd-like workplace doesn’t even seem to recognize the fact that he has worked there for seven years. He is invisible. The young lady he pines for doesn’t seem to know he exists. He is awkward. And suddenly, a man with his face, named James Simon, waltzes into his life and, bit by bit, begins to steal the identity he has always wanted.
From the moment that Jesse Eisenberg appears on screen, he looks more wounded than usual. His eyes are sunken, the expressionistic lighting creating a shadow on his cheekbones. The frown, though. It isn’t quite a frown. It is hard to describe, but the expression, apparently normal for Simon James, is one that gives away how lost Simon is, and how poorly he is able to hide his own melancholy and self-loathing.
In a strange way, it does not seem that it was hard for Eisenberg to play both roles. That sounds mean, perhaps, but I say it as a compliment: Eisenberg is able to jump between both distinctive characters so effortlessly, one imagines that he nearly did it in his sleep. It is also the fact that both Simon James and James Simon are heightened, exaggerated versions of characters that he has portrayed before: Simon is nearly incapacitated by his awkwardness and anxiety whereas James is aggressively confident to an asshole-ish extent. Simon seems to come out of Adventureland and The Squid and the Whale, while James seems to be partially derived from, most obviously, The Social Network. If you have ever seen Eisenberg in interviews, one can see that neither of these personas in their more reigned in form are great stretches from Eisenberg’s personality. The attractively pouty façade with the sharp cheekbones seems to manifest both. So, Eisenberg gets typecast primarily as “the awkward one”. But, the difference between Eisenberg and, say, Michael Cera is that Eisenberg uses this uncomfortable introverted quality to create a caricature of himself for The Double, so hyperbolic that Simon James becomes separate and external from Jesse Eisenberg, the Actor. There is an incredible skill here in the ability to channel both “versions” of a persona that is, since his douche role as Mark Zuckerberg, kind of iconic. That iconography notwithstanding, the James character becomes borderline sadistic, a shade of grey that Zuckerberg never becomes.
It is fascinating to see Eisenberg, then, pay particular attention to the inflection of his line readings for Simon. Eisenberg is already excellent at the stutter, jittery articulation, but he notches it to an astonishing level. Simon trips over his words, is often rendered speechless, and searches so desperately for what to say, I found myself out of breath. But when he finally allows himself a moment of vulnerability to the very doppelganger who will become his enemy, Eisenberg gives an outstandingly nuanced performance allowing his character incredible depth.
James Simon feels newer in comparison, as he is lewder, more conniving, more confident, and meaner than we have seen Eisenberg before. Even his poise is different. While Simon’s face is fraught with sadness, James is ready to bare his teeth. On James’s face is a default aggression, a nature of antagonism and duplicity. But, unlike Simon, James gets what he wants. James is, plainly, exactly the person that Simon wants to be but is unable to actualize himself being.
Ayoade is playing with an interesting Freudian concept of The Divided Self, expanded upon by R.D. Laing, wherein the combative nature of schizophrenia spirals out of control. The ego and the id are here in this film in full force. The process of going insane, in many ways, has rarely been as penetrating.
The object of their affection is Mia Wasikowska’s Hannah, on whom Simon spies upon from his room. The film does not let Simon off the hook, and it balances the sympathy it has for Simon when James comes in and swoops her off of her feet. It is frustrating, nonetheless, to see Hannah treat one person so disdainfully while becoming totally enamored of the other side of that same person. Wasikowska, nonetheless, is excellent, shining like a ceramic figurine.
The Double takes place in an unnamed place, though it is implied that the world that Simon inhabits is a dystopian nightmare for him. It’s so industrious, but hard to pin down what exactly it came from. Everything is a rust color. Though he is alienated from everything around him despite his attempts to blend in with the crowd and make a connection with someone, fate prevents this. His world is an ugly cyan color, reminiscent of another doppelganger film, Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique. Though that film, too, had a mystical quality, The Double veer more towards using the same kind of color palette to render the space flat, horrifically mundane. The startling uses of other colors, like blue or red, augment the strangeness of the environment. Ayoade plunges the audience in this weird, unmarked. Much of the film takes places in hallways, ever the symbol of possibilities. But Ayoade combines the darkness of German expressionism, film noir, the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, and Stanley Kubrick’s memorable one point perspective shots to create a wholly unique way at looking at a standby kind of shot. Here, Ayoade proves himself a fascinating technician, not only in his use of a double, but also by simply following, or not following one down the hall.
Ayoade’s closest auteuristic relatives may not be who most people might think it is, at least not for The Double. First, there is David Lynch. Ayoade constructs a meticulously manipulated soundscape for the film, accentuating the unsettling nature of The Double. It’s the kind of sound that gets under your skin and makes you nauseous. Paired with some of the film’s most incredible shots, the film is not unlike Eraserhead in some of its stylistics.
The other relative, more interestingly to me, is Lars von Trier, and specifically Dogville. IN the same way that we watch a presumably good person, Grace (Nicole Kidman) in Dogville, have bad things happen to them, that in and of itself does not warrant the comparison to von Trier’s masterpiece. What does is the evocation of frustration, anger, and empathy towards the character, and the ultimate understanding that this is not sadism for its own sake. Simon is taken advantage of so often in the film and when that is juxtaposed against sharper threatening and contentious James getting what he wants, one is filled with rage. It ends up being an incredible sharp contrast of action and reaction. Both create the impression that they approach these subjects and stories from a similar fairly cynical perspective; that even you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Ayoade might even take a step further, suggesting that for the introverts and the meek, Hell awaits. With the striking pace that Ayoade sets for his film, the jarring quality of the whole is to be commended without it lagging at any time.
Ayoade’s proclivities towards homages to iconic directors isn’t surprising: he directed the music video for Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma” which mashes an extended tracking shot from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend with the Futura emboldened and twee aesthetic of Wes Anderson. Ayoade likes playing with the familiar and mashing them up to create something interesting and refreshing and does so here, with its numerous callbacks to other films and styles.
It is hard to read, though, what the film says. While one is lost in the technical magic of the most basic process for doing a film with doubles (they rotoscoped it), it dances and pirouettes around increasingly nihilistic tones. Defying genre pigeonholing as not quite a comedy and not quite a thriller and not quite a horror movie, it resembles the very life of its lead character in its unwillingness to be confined to any one thing despite the rest of us trying to do just that. (Its deftly written dialogue points towards black comedy, its severely eerie mood suggests thriller, and its outstanding, aggressive score by Andrew Hewitt infers horror.) There’s definitely a part of Simon that absolutely hates himself for what he is, making the appearance of James all the more painful for him. His hyper self-awareness makes things worse and even more crippling. Above all, The Double is shrouded in darkness.
Not only is Ayoade an outstanding technical filmmaker, but his ability to create an uneasy atmosphere with oblique symbolism and a story bereft with paranoia and sadness of a singular kind make him a director one should keep their eye on. However, The Double is equally a showcase for Ayoade as it is for Jesse Eisenberg, who gives his most impressive performance here. It’s darkly amusing and often very frightening, but it is first and foremost drenched in sorrow and mournfulness. Like mourning over a part of yourself that you killed.
This entry was posted in comedy, drama, Horror, thriller and tagged Barton Fink, David Fincher, David Lynch, Dogville, Eraserhead, Jesse Eisenberg, Joel and Ethan Coen, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Lars von Trier, Mark Zuckerberg, Mia Wasikowska, Michael Cera, Nicole Kidman, Richard Ayoade, Sigmund Freud, Submarine, The Double Life of Veronique, The Social Network, The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland.