‘You’re in my place’ are the first lines spoken in Richard Ayoade’s The Double to central character Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) by a man whose is face is obscured by a newspaper. As this faceless entity orders Simon to surrender his seat on an otherwise empty train carriage, one assumes that the film has opened with a dream sequence in which events occur according to dream logic and function to represent Simon’s internal anxieties through metaphor. However, if this sequence is meant to be interpreted as one of Simon’s dreams then the whole film must also be. One quickly realises that there is a little divide between this surreal opening sequence and the body of the film. The line ‘you’re in my place’ and his near inability to exit the train due to a mundane obstruction, a man loading countless cardboard boxes onto the carriage, introduce Simon’s way of experiencing the real world or what at least purports to be the real. This interest in his invisibility and insignificance in addition to the myriad ways his life and work are obstructed by forces outside himself work as the major themes of The Double and reoccur continually throughout the film.
While the occurrence of the doppelgänger has been a cinematic trope since the discovery of double exposure, the film seems to me to be fundamentally indebted to literature. Before I saw the closing credits, I spent the whole film thinking about how unoriginal The Double is. At this point I had no idea that it was based on Dostoevsky’s famously difficult work of the same name, and instead read the film in relation to my understanding of literature in which the figure of the double is a central motif or where the main protagonist is oppressed by irrational forces outside himself – works often situated within the world of bureaucracy or a totalitarian regime. I immediately thought about a number of books including the famous works of Kafka and Orwell and two others which I had recently read: The Double by José Saramago and Ghosts by Paul Auster. While I can now see The Double as an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel, it also seems to me to draw from a number of other significant works (or perhaps it is because these works were influenced by the Russian The Double and that the elements of subsequent novels can be traced back to Dostoevsky).
Whatever this line of influence, one can also view Ayoade’s cine-literacy as present in much of the visuals and dialogue of The Double. It seems to me that Ayoade, who made his name acting in The IT Crowd (2006-)before venturing into filmmaking with the Wes Anderson indebted Submarine (2010), is attempting to prove himself as an intellectual filmmaker through references to Brazil (1985), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Magnolia (1999), Godard and Kaurismäki etc. in addition to those esteemed works of literature he draws so heavily from. This sort of approach is reminiscent of early Quentin Tarantino where references to works of the Nouvelle Vague helped to cement his status as a highly knowledgeable filmmaker. While the use of homage may prove that Ayoade knows what he is talking about, and the corollary that we should therefore respect his work, I would prefer to see a film less indebted to other works which demonstrates the emergence of an Ayoade style or range of themes if we should ever start to take him really seriously. Despite his debt to other writers and filmmakers, Ayoade succeeds in conceiving an oppressive world to house Simon James and his doppelgänger James Simon, both played by Jesse Eisenberg.
The Double is set both in what appears to be a contemporary vision of the future and a past interpretation of a futuristic society: the film’s world seems both futuristic and dated. The most dated vision of the future are the images present in the various televisions adverts which advertise the company that Simon James works at, inserted into the narrative to provide exposition and highlight Simon’s invisibility: he is so insignificant his own family fail to recognise him in the background of one of the adverts. These adverts appear to be shot on magnetic tape, resembling a type of television situated in the past while the outrageous costumes and figure of the colonel, the mysterious leader of the company, recall 80s science fiction, notably the world depicted within Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The Double additionally appears to be set in perpetual darkness, a city where the Sun never rises. While it is potentially feasible that the film’s setting is the winter Arctic Circle, its best to read this darkness as either metaphorical, as representing Simon’s oppressed life, or adding to the film noir aesthetic Ayoade is emulating.
Simon James works at an unnamed corporation where nobody knows of his existence, not even the security guard who has met him every morning for seven years. Simon describes his personality within the film as ‘lost, lonely, invisible’ and indeed as if he was writing literature Ayoade makes his characters offer descriptions of themselves, instead of allowing the audience to understand their personalities through observations of their behaviour. Simon believes he is like Pinocchio, a wooden boy wishing to become a real boy, desiring the normality everyone else enjoys. The film opens as a tale of unrequited love with Simon fantasising about the unobtainable Hannah, played by Mia Wasikowska, who works in the photocopier department of his company and lives in the apartment opposite him. A new employee who is identical to Simon James in every way other than personality soon arrives at the company. His name is James Simon and he is bestowed with all the features Simon desires: supreme confidence, popularity, swagger and success with women. As commonplace in the double genre, nobody at his place of work seems to register the similarity between the two employees. This is met to Simon’s horror, who already feels alienated enough.
While James first offers friendship and advice to Simon, he ruptures their relationship by bedding Hannah and subsequently blackmailing and stealing the hard work Simon has laboured over for years, work which Simon did to make himself visible to boss Mr Papadopoulos. James, who has no idea what the company does, soon rises in the esteem of Mr Papadopoulos, impressing him with the work Simon has toiled over. Reminiscent of Auster’s Ghosts, Simon spends a good deal of time spying on Mia and his doppelgänger via the telescope he has pointed at her apartment. The film then takes surrealist turns, with the exchanging of roles, circular narratives, the emergence of nightmare imagery and Simon’s yearning for death.
The film offers a number of lines of interpretation, including mental illness and the dangers of totalitarianism and capitalist society to account for its narrative. While Ayoade succeeds in leaving the meaning of The Double as ambiguous, I interpreted the film as about mental illness – Simon punches James in the face, they both bleed – rather than about the struggle for identity within a totalitarian regime. Indeed Dostoevsky’s novel ends with the protagonist being carted off to a mental asylum, a factor accounting for this interpretation. Overall, Ayoade uses elements from a number of diverse sources in an appealing albeit unoriginal way. The film’s success is indebted to its use of photography and décor – the world he has created is impressive – while Eisenberg is great in the two roles and the dialogue and narrative organisation are fairly interesting. Although The Double has secured Ayoade’s status as director of interest, he will hopefully come more into his own in his next project, offering a work which fulfils the promises suggested by this film. Better than most films, but not entirely great: a low four stars.