A few years ago, actor Richard Ayoade (mostly known for British sitcom The IT Crowd) made his directorial debut with a movie called Submarine. It was clear that Ayoade’s influences included the French New Wave and the work of Wes Anderson, but it was also easy to see that he had a particular style and vision of the world. That his take on the story of a young romance was darker and dirtier than what you would usually see in a cutesy independent comedy. It was not a perfect film, but Submarine was exciting enough to become one of my favorite films of 2011, and have me looking forward to Ayoade might be directing in the future. Well, the future is now, and if Submarine was a promise of Ayoade being a promising new talent, his new film The Double is the first sign that the promise is being fulfilled.
The story of Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), an anonymous worker in some sort of retro-dystopian office, who lives hopelessly in love with the cute copy-machine operator played by Mia Wasikowska, and who is thrown into a downward spiral when his doppelgänger (also played by Eisenberg and named James Simon) becomes the most popular and successful guy in the office, can only be best described as a deeply Kafkaesque experience. Watching the movie, I though of many other works that must have influenced Ayoade (most notably Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment); but despite its callbacks to other movies, and despite the fact that it based on a Dostoyevsky novella, the biggest influence in The Double is undoubtedly the work of Franz Kafka. Frankly, I would even go as far as to say that The Double is the most successful attempt of translating the unbearable anxiety of a Kafka novel to the big screen.
Simon is as desperate and unsuccessful in his attempts to stop what is happening to him as any Kafka protagonist ever was. Like in Kafka’s short stories, he is trapped in a world that meets him with constant hostility. This world is presented in a heightened way that makes us think we are watching a fantasy, but where every obstacle Simon encounters feels very recognizable as a daily life struggle that reveals this horrible office complex is much closer to reality that we’d like to think. Simon is not living a fantasy. This absurd nightmare is a reality, and there is seemingly no way he can escape. Jesse Eisenberg is fantastic, managing to very effectively use the two character types he has played in the past (the nervous guy from Adventureland and the arrogant prick from The Social Network) to differentiate between Simon and James, Meanwhile, after Only Lovers Left Alive and now this, Mia Wasikowska is having one hell of a year, and is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses.
As for the technical aspects of the movie, well, they are essential to the success of The Double. The art direction is nightmarish in the way it evokes the oppressively bland architecture of institutional buildings. The editing establishes a relentless rhythm that mirrors Simon’s desperation, and is used very well when it needs to support the movie’s comedy. The cinematography uses negative space to present characters as the only living thing in the frame. And the score by Andrew Hewitt is simply fantastic. The Double is definitely a piece of postmodern cinema. It couldn’t possibly exist without its many influences, but it filters and organizes them in such a way that it emerges as a piece of cinema all its own. It is also telling, that despite the seeming inevitability of a tragic ending to this helpless protagonist, the movie’s final moments ditch Kafka’s pessimism for a slightly more hopeful ending. It is clear that, to a certain extent, Simon’s doppelgänger is supposed to be a metaphor, but in truly Kafkaesque fashion, the real enjoyment of the movie comes in trying to figure out what the metaphor means.
Grade: 8 out of 10