TIFF Review: 'The Double'

Though he has spent nearly a decade in the public spotlight cultivating an exaggeratedly deadpan comic persona, British actor and filmmaker Richard Ayoade is, in truth, something of an intellectual. You may have detected hints of this in his debut feature, the likable but largely insubstantial "Submarine", tucked away in the periphery of his otherwise rote coming-of-age story: smuggled in and around the familiar twee trappings borrowed wholesale from Wes Anderson were nods to the darker and more melancholic (and decidedly French), from snatches of a score inspired by the Georges Delerue of Godard’s “Contempt” to title cards painted deep red and blue in honor of “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her” and “Week End”. Though it was seized upon instantly by the college-aged “Rushmore” crowd, “Submarine” never seemed especially interested in that kind of hipster-poseur sensibility, and to that end I believe its failure ultimately lay in its inability to nudge viewers hard enough toward the location of its richer inspirations. If Ayoade wanted to make his serious intentions known, he would need fewer concessions to the modish and self-styled cool.

One of the most striking things about Ayoade’s second feature “The Double”, then, is how its intellectual and emotional aspirations instantly make those suppressed by “Submarine” more apparent. Despite a somewhat rough start, “The Double” confirms handily that Ayoade is indeed the real deal, an ambitious young filmmaker working in a register shared by far too few of his contemporaries. The level of this second film’s craft becomes clear almost the moment it begins: the world he has constructed, a kind of purgatorial headspace soaked in harsh amber light and cobbled together from spare parts, has a tactile, remarkably lived-in feel, conveying at a glance in atmosphere what the film will go on to elaborate on a conceptual and thematic level.

Ayoade, in an interview conducted for Film.com during the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, spoke of his desire to build a world which looked like the future as envisioned by the past, referring to once-universal conceptions of enormous personal computer bays and eeriely uniform homes and apparel. He has thus outfitted the frame with detail so abundant and peculiar that the world of the film appears thoroughly uncanny. Television commercials and programmes have been shot on analog video and look as if they’ve been stored in a cabinet for thirty years. Every mass-market device seems assembled unevenly and by hand, the production design throughout a singular mesh of the steampunk and the sleek. You can be assured that nothing looks quite like this.

More recognizable, perhaps, is the premise, adapted from the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novella of the same name and echoed recognizably in a variety of books and films since. We follow Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg, in his best performance to date), a programmer of dweeby reticence employed at a stats-compiling company in an unnamed urban center who one day heads to work to find that he has been joined by an exact doppelganger. The double, who naturally goes by the name James Simon (and is played by Eisenberg again), exceeds in every social and professional area where Simon has long floundered, quickly proving himself a well-liked success at the further expense of Simon’s own happiness.

Taking up residence in the same apartment complex and summarily courting the very woman (Mia Wasikowska) Simon has been pursuing in silence for years, James arrives with all the gratifying presence you could hope for in a visual metaphor, and it’s to Ayoade’s credit that he handles the many sequences of doubling and opposition with the right degree of subtlety and grace.

Though their early interactions are duly hilarious—particularly when James begins coaching Simon on how to dazzle where he ordinarily stumbles, instructing him to exude confidence and lick his lips conspicuously in a way he only manages to make embarrassingly lizard-like—they are crucially inflected with the pain of their symbolic import, underscoring even the broadest elements of comic fantasy with the hurt of lived experience. As in Orson Welles’s adaptation of “The Trial”—hardly the only nod to Kafka here—the comedy of social anxiety and gross misunderstanding are rooted in the tragic, a point Ayoade is sure to stress further as the story develops and the film moves on. “The Double” taps into a deep reservoir of psychic turmoil even as it navigates the script’s abundant jokes, and the nightmare of the heart of the film is doubtless universal.

SCORE: 7.8 / 10