Yay! Richard Ayoade directed a thing! And it’s as brilliantly bonkers as he is! Based on the novella of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Double is a charmingly unsettling descent into probably madness, sort of like if somebody took you on a really surreal date to a desolate restaurant but held your hands as you both marvelled at how pretty the half-smashed-in neon lights were.
Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a self-proclaimed “wooden boy”. Pathetically doormattish, he’s ignored at work, glossed over by his aging mother, and barely acknowledged by Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the girl he has a crush on. He seems to have all but fully accepted his lot in life (or lack thereof). “Meek” is a gross understatement. He is passive to the nth degree. Of course I can identify with Simon, because I, too, feel invisible and unimportant at times; people frequently don’t realise I’m there in a queue (even if I’m standing in front of them), and others behind me get served first. At a train station in a crowd, I’m the person that people brush by and run into, as if I’m not even there, or that I just don’t matter. So I’ve felt to be of very little value and function to the world. But maybe not to the extent that people have stopped recognising me at work after 7 years of working there…
Which is where it starts to go so terribly wrong for Simon. The day after witnessing a suicide/jumper in his Soviet-esque housing estate, a new employee named James Simon (er, also by Eisenberg) starts work in Simon’s division, but nobody – except Simon (and James) can see that they look exactly alike. But that’s where it ends. Simon is more confident, more successful with women, better-respected at work, and even admired by Hannah. In a sense, James is just more “visible”, and it’s from this point that Simon’s place in his own world seems to be disintegrating.
Much of the direction and humour bear Ayoade’s trademark awkward restraint, and played to the same pitch-perfect comic effect as with his on-screen appearances. Eisenberg’s acting comfort zone is the ideal springboard for this, and uses it elicit some massive, pitiful laughs, such as a scene in which Simon tries to overhear a conversation in a loud diner, but a nearby radio is blasting a vintage Chinese pop song. He tries to turn the volume down, but the dial breaks off in his hand. Unsure of what to do, he just keeps the dial in his hand and just timidly folds his hand back against his chest.
Almost all of the film is in Eisenberg’s hands, and he effortlessly spins both characters’ journeys into two quite brilliant performances. Also no stranger to muted roles in an wildly offbeat film is Wasikowska, who imbues Hannah with just enough melancholic charm to make the audience sympathise with her. And what’s also great about this movie is that, while there is a love story, this isn’t the central part of the film, so there’s no fallback on cliche-ing Hannah’s character with some manic pixie dream girl trope to drive the story along. It’s more about the character’s journey of self-discovery….on his own.
Arguably, the most striking thing about this film is the imagery. The film is beautifully and meticulously shot, with every frame carefully arranged like a bloody work of art. It’s sort of like if Wes Anderson and David Lynch adopted a baby and raised it in a film school. And occasionally Terry Gilliam came to visit. The sets, colour palette, lighting and deliberate geographical ambiguity all evoke a 1980s Soviet/police state, and gradually transform the haunting, bleak tone from curious to quirky to shudderingly menacing. Like Diary of a Madman, but cinematically. Though the plot is linear and quite straightforward, it’s a film that politely requests repeat viewings for some of its elements that are more open to interpretation. It’s such a compelling, bizarre little film that it’s made me wish I’d bothered to have done a ratings system. Maybe something like 11 pumpkins? Out of 10.