As I was watching The Double I kept thinking, “This is very Kafkaesque,” but then the end credits reminded me that it’s based on a story by Dostoevsky. It’s hard to tell how faithful the adaptation is, since I haven’t read the story, but the setting has certainly been greatly modified. The story happens in a vaguely dystopian near future along the lines of Terry Gilliams’ Brazil (1985), except without the overt fascism. Jess Eisenberg plays Simon James — a terminally introverted dweeb working for a data processing company who yearns for (and spies on) the lonely photocopy girl, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), but can’t get up the nerve to tell her. Simon lives in a nightmare world in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and even inanimate objects such as elevators have it in for him. Life is one cruel humiliation after another, with all of his most pathetic behaviors exposed to his disapproving neighbors and co-workers.
The title derives from the appearance of Simon’s double, James Simon, who is his opposite in everything except looks. James is aggressive, out-going, gregarious, charming, and lucky. At first Simon and James are somewhat friendly, and James offers to coach Simon in how to woo Hannah. Before long, however, James is having sex with Hannah instead, as well as with any number of the other women who throw themselves at him. He takes credit for all of Simon’s ideas and becomes a favorite with the company boss (Wallace Shawn).
This is a very strange, eccentric movie. It’s a nightmare that’s very appealing, at least conceptually, at the Dreamland Cafe. The production design, lighting, and throbbing, nearly subliminal, soundtrack are all brilliant, creating a dim, perceptually confusing but vivid world that feels like the inside of somebody’s feverish head. Questions of identity and agency are scrambled, and a fatalistic foreboding permeates every frame. Shifting, strobing light and shadow constantly mutate Eisenberg’s unmoving face in unsettling ways. By the end I had no idea what was going on, or who was Simon and who was James, but it all looked and felt exactly right. The thing has its own internal logic, even if it isn’t immediately apparent what it is. Little jokes at the beginning, such as Simon’s mother inopportunely asking whether Hannah is fertile, take on unexpected meaning later on. There are inexplicable structural parallels in the narrative that again create a fatalistic sense of rightness and closure.
It’s bleak and existential, and yet it’s also darkly, distressingly funny. I identified with the perpetually hapless Simon in ways that made it uncomfortable for me. This is British director Richard Ayoade’s second feature film, and I was impressed by how accomplished it felt. Not necessarily a nightmare I want to revisit often, but a good counterbalance to the summer blockbusters I’ve seen lately. An intellectual horror film of sorts.