The Double (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Double (2014)

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Dipping into the well of the literary greats, Richard Ayoade's second film adopts a story from Fyodor Dostoyevsky and makes it about a man who ignored in his professional and love lives.  As his frustrations mount he arrives at work to find a man, who looks exactly like him but moves with strength and confidence, is slowly taking over his life.  Jesse Eisenberg stars in this dark comedy of urban decay and loneliness, which is Ayoade's first film since his well-received 2010 film Submarine.

Fingal fangleRichard Ayoade's second film has convinced me of two things.  First, this early in his career, he is as comfortable behind the camera as any director who has decades of work behind them.  The Double is another tight, extremely well made film with a strong visual style and little room for fat.  Second, I hope he one day finds room in his creative process to create something that is his own instead of skillfully aping the styles, plots, and themes of those who have come before him.

For those of you familiar with his earlier film, 2010's delightful coming-of-age film Submarine, this won't come as a surprise.  That film owed a huge debt to the great director Francois Truffaut with its lens flitting about between the tactile sensations of the adolescent protagonist to the nervous distance between him and the girls he so admired.  So with The Double Ayoade has an international fusion of styles - taking bits of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky for the basis and structure of the story, then borrowing equally from the sterile cubicles of the French Jacques Tati's Playtime and the sinister underbelly of bureaucracy as seen in the nationally flexible films of Terry Gilliam.

The best thing I can muster on this combination is that Ayoade does not falter in combining the styles of each into a cohesive whole.  The problem I have is with that whole.  Ayoade's films function both as an ode to these directors but also possesses their same issues.  So with Submarine we ended up with a lot of gray area between the protagonists troublesome actions that isn't entirely excused by the narrative.  The Double comes to more troubling conclusions about its character that aren't addressed either by the conflict between himself that's central to the film or the supporting characters who end up rewarding behavior that should be more problematic than it is.

Bureaucracy so crippling in its ineffectiveness that you can send a task for 0 copies.

Bureaucracy so crippling in its ineffectiveness that you can send a task for 0 copies.

The Double involves a lot of the audience watching Simon watching other people and wishing to have something that they have and he can't figure out how to obtain.  One thing that's quietly emphasized is exactly how much work Simon's voyeurism involves since the majority of the building, while consisting mostly of windows, are grimy and difficult to see through.  So Simon's gaze is pronounced throughout the film because he, and by extension the set and world of Ayoade's urban hellscape, have to construct ways to watch others.  This has the effect of turning all of Simon's targets of desire into mere objects observed from a great distance, either through the lens of his telescope or separated by the tables loaded with gizmos that he has to deal with at work.

It also has the effect of trivializing the pain of the women that Simon claims to feel any kind of desire for.  This is doubled-up in the narrative as whatever woman finds herself occupying Simon's gaze is eventually seized by James' aggressive charms.  The psychological reading for this is pathetically easy, but one that The Double does little to dissuade.  From start to finish, the women of The Double exist either to be placed at a distance from the protagonist or to be dominated by his rampaging id.  The question becomes whether the grimy backdrop that this sexual hunt takes place in is that way because of the sins that are allowed to fester, or if Simon's insecurities are a result of the urban hell  that is all around him.

Sadly, Ayoade and coscreenwriter Avi Korine take the easy way out and make Simon's sins the end result of his environment and not of him.  The motif running throughout the film is that Simon has been depersonalized, either through the tiny cubicle with its archaic keyboard or the security guards who he dealt with just a day before now saying that he is a non-existent person because he is no longer in the system.  While this leads to a number of impressive sights, especially the submarine-esque workspace that he has to go to every day (which is a subtle allusion to his previous film), it tries to lead the audience toward the idea that Simon is not responsible for his actions when he has to go to this cramped space every day.  When we eventually find out that Simon has been less voyeuristic than we thought and spends his time literally reconstructing the pain of his love object the response is not horror at his actions, but sympathy that this is what life in the city made him do.

Even in darkness Ayoade's film is striking.

Even in darkness Ayoade's film is striking.

Does the depersonalizing effect of living in a cramped urban environment forgive creepy stalker behavior and a hunter / prey mentality when it comes to relationships?  If your answer is yes, then the barrage of decaying urban landscapes and Jesse Eisenberg's dual-performances may sit with you a bit better.  If no, then you'll recognize the way he mistreats women as the misogyny that it is, not the unfortunate side-effect of his urban life.

Which is a shame, because there are a few moments of dialogue that come close to calling out Simon for what he is.  The most potent is when Mia Wasikowska nearly starts screaming as the camera cuts closers as she tells the story of this stalker who just wouldn't leave her alone - a tale that should resonate more with Simon than it ultimately does.  This incriminating thread is occasionally doubled-up by the charming Wallace Shawn who similarly derides Simon for his lazy dreaming.  But as the film goes on and it becomes less likely that we'll get the examination of Simon he deserves we can at least take comfort in the amazing art and st design.  There are quite a few blink-and-you'll-miss-it jokes, my favorite being the copy machine that has "0" as an option, spread among the totally constructed reality that Simon resides in.

All this effort and superb execution goes into a film that pays casual attention to the moral problems that are at its core.  Ayoade must have watched the butchered version of Brazil that has a happy ending.  It's not the only way to explain how the life of a voyeuristic creep can be rewarded, especially in relation to some of Gilliam's later troubling films, but those bits of self-awareness leave hope he'll leave this path of emulation behind to make his own film one day.

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The Double TailThe Double (2014)

Directed by Richard Ayoade.
Screenplay written by Richard Ayoade and Avi Korine.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, and Wallace Shawn.

Posted by Andrew

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