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The Double (2013)
Director: Richard Ayoade

review by J.C. Hartley

Sigmund Freud in his massively influential essay on 'the Uncanny' drew on the work of Ernst Jentsch and Otto Rank to analyse how the familiar made unfamiliar becomes disconcerting or indeed frightening. Freud enlarged upon Rank's concept of the 'double', initially appearing as an avatar of the immortal soul holding out the possibility of eternal life, but also potentially as a warning of imminent death. One name for a 'double' in folklore is the 'fetch', literally an entity charged with collecting those fated to die. The double is a familiar trope in Gothic literature, and indeed literature as a whole, but it seems to have particular power within genre narratives as a means to present 'good' and 'evil' aspects of a character.

Of course, its use within genre fiction is usually more subtle than that. Mary Shelley layers double upon double in Frankenstein, as Captain Walton, the initial narrator of the story is a double for Victor Frankenstein, Victor's creation is a double for his creator exploring the emotional experiences that Victor has shunned, and even doomed Clerval, Victor's friend, is a double for the eponymous hero. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is another obvious example, and one that postulates the 'good' and 'evil' reading of the trope, although there is clearly more going on in Stevenson's narrative than that. In film, Antonioni's The Passenger (1975), and Fassbinder's Despair (1978) - based on a Nabokov novel, mine the notion of the double, but check out Roger Moore in The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) the last film by Dead Of Night's Basil Dearden.

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky's short novel The Double, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin is a minor bureaucrat haunted by his double who, after initially befriending him, seems intent upon taking over his life. Richard Ayoade's adaptation of the novel, with co-writer Avi Korine, is remarkably faithful to the spirit and sense of the book, with shared incident and mood, but it is a true adaptation in that it develops themes and pursues its own agenda.

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a shy put-upon worker in a ghastly office full of geriatric co-workers, doing unfathomable work for the distant glamorous Colonel (James Fox), in a town made up of shadows and a drab Eastern-bloc palate. We see him bullied out of his seat on an otherwise empty train by a faceless fellow passenger; we suspect this is an early appearance by the titular double. He is unable to leave the train while men load it with boxes, he advances and retreats in a Chaplinesque dance; finally forcing his way off at his stop he loses his briefcase in the door. The security guard at his work fails to recognise him, despite him working there for seven years, and he has lost his pass; his boss Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn, perfectly cast) does not even know his name. James' only consolation is his unspoken passion for pretty co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). James spies on Hannah who lives in the apartment opposite. She inks pictures, which seem to suggest she is lonely too, before tearing them up and feeding them into the waste disposal, where James collects them, puts them back together and stores them in a notebook. Spying on Hannah, James sees another tenant of the apartment block commit suicide, police attending the scene tell him it happens all the time.

A new recruit arrives at the office, James Simon, and Simon James is shocked to recognise his exact double. More shocking is his realisation that his colleagues do not appear to see the resemblance. After some initial coolness between the pair, James Simon takes Simon James under his protective wing. James is forceful and confident, always getting his own way, winning respect and admiration. He persuades Simon to take on his workload in return for mentoring Papadopoulos' astringent daughter Melanie (Submarine's Yasmin Paige), and giving Simon advice on how to woo Hannah.

James' mentoring of Melanie, as he describes the uploading of personal data as a sexy concept, seems to be a sly nod to The Social Network. The friendship between the doubles is short-lived however; James seduces Hannah, and takes the willing Melanie to bed, before using photographs of this latter coupling to blackmail Simon into allowing his apartment to be used for more sexual trysts. If Simon is recognisable from these photographs, then clearly it is not that Papadopoulos and the office staff are unaware of the resemblance between Simon and James, it is just that they do not see Simon at all; he only exists for them in a context dictated by James. Forced out of his apartment, and his job, finally Simon confronts James at his mother's funeral, where James is playing the part of the mourning son. A violent conflict seems to indicate to Simon the truth of the relationship, and he makes plans to take back control of his life.

The film begins with a certain grim inevitability reminiscent of Brazil, retro-computers and faulty lifts, dystopic Kafkaesque totalitarianism. I have never been a fan of Brazil, it is ultimately just too grim for me; I'm more a Baron Munchausen man myself. Fortunately, the tone lightens when the doubles' short-lived bromance takes off, before the helter-skelter descent into madness and revenge. I can see that this film might turn a lot of people off, its slow start and cramped perspective made me a bit fidgety, in anticipation of the travails I suspected Simon was about to face. Read the one-star reviews on Amazon, where they complain about everything from the 'weird concept' to the (really?) lighting; or rather don't. Ultimately, the fantastic performances and Ayoade's single-minded vision carry it off. There even seems to be a reference to The Prisoner.

I hate extras, so I was happy to ignore the extended scenes and deleted scenes. If there had been a discussion of the source material, or something about literary and cinematic doubles, I might have been tempted; people will listen to talking heads if they know what they're talking about.

The Double



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