Sunday, 3 August 2014

Film Review: The Double (2013)

Director: Richard Ayoade
Screenplay: Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn

“You’re in my place” says an anonymous man to Simon James, an equally anonymous man who just happens to be the lead in The Double, as he sits on an empty train. Simon gets up and moves, looking back at the man in a mirror only to see a distorted reflection of his own self. These are the first words uttered and actions seen and set that tone for what follows in Richard Ayoade’s sophomore effort as director, and things only get worse for our protagonist who is self-described as being “permanently outside myself.”

From the very start Ayoade’s film lays out its tone as both a dark dystopian nightmare and a darkly comic film as well. The train is dim and dark with only a few flickers of light breaking through like it’s travelling through a never-ending tunnel of loneliness, yet it looks artificial, straight out of some nightmare. The carriages drift back and forth, unnervingly so. Yet when Simon leaves the train his briefcase is trapped, the handle snaps off, and Ayoade brings his own sense of levity to close the scene. Without the humour, the film would be too bleak, too serious for its own good; but the right balance is struck early on.

Simon James is one of the few employees under 60 at his oppressive office where no one knows his name or recognises him despite having worked there for seven years. We wonder why he sticks with the job (where data is crunched for reasons unknown to seemingly everyone) but assume the alternatives are far worse; the police have a suicide squad for his neighbourhood alone and he watches one man jump to his death through his telescope. The telescope is the only expensive looking object in his minimalistic apartment, which suggests citizens are not encouraged to spend money on themselves in this dystopian world of Ayoade’s, but Simon’s telescope is his one way of daring to have a life outside of the office. After all, his only other way of separating work from home is to switch from shoes to trainers. How liberating the view from a telescope must seem, we think.

It is through the telescope Simon James first sees James Simon, a man who looks identical in every way. The next day they meet at work, but James soon becomes a rising star and everyone’s friend whilst no one comments on the similarity. “You’re a bit of a non-person” says a co-worker to Simon when he asks if this new guy bears any resemblance to him, a theme which runs through the film; his own mother doesn’t even recognise him when he proudly shows her a corporate video he is featured in, and several times others ask him why he doesn’t just kill himself.

We can’t help but find amusement in Simon’s predicament (thanks largely to Jesse Eisenberg’s superb dual performance, and the first time I haven’t disliked him as an screen presence), like when he gets thrown out of a mandatory work party, or when he gets stuck with the bill at a restaurant after seeing his double successfully woo the girl (Mia Wasikowska, who is fast becoming my favourite young actress) he has been longing, or even when his double asks for a meal off-menu at the cafe Simon has been eating at for years; James gets everything he wants and Simon can’t even get a Coke. It’s his sense of loyalty that keeps him coming back despite never getting what he wants, like everything else in his miserable existence; without these scenes and touches, The Double might be too depressing and self-serious to enjoy but Ayoade knows exactly what he wants from his material and knows what his audience wants, too.

A film like The Double could so easily veer off into directions unknown, loose its way and be nothing other than ‘odd’, but Ayoade and the creative minds around him make every scene visually compelling and intriguing. Overhead lighting hides the eyes, the ‘windows to the soul’ so we often see Simon without expression, and without personality whilst front-lit shots leave the background shrouded in darkness; fog hangs over the exterior scenes like a ceiling, enclosing the citizens with no visibility of the world outside, and no signs of getting out and not once do we see the sunshine for all lighting in the film is hyperreal and designed to set a mood from beginning to end; the score by Andrew Hewitt is foreboding at times, yet Ayoade infuses the film with Japanese songs which may seem odd but so is the world of The Double, so why shouldn’t we believe this is the music people are listening to? Perhaps all other music is denied?

I’ve seen the film twice now and in both viewings I was equally struck by just how much I loved the avant garde style and vision of a dystopia (perhaps inspired by, but never deliberately copying Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), but also how refreshing the final third is. Certainly, it is not straight forward nor is anything spoonfed to us, and it gets quite manic at times but Ayoade does a great job at putting us in the mindset of Simon. We, like he, have many questions as the film ends but this isn’t a film where everything needs to be resolved and it embraces the madness.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: Combining an unrelentingly beautiful visual style, great performances from two young actors, a score which fits the moods perfectly, and an intelligent yet playful script, this film has it all and rewards the viewer on repeated viewings. Undoubtedly one of the year’s finest films, The Double is just what I look from a trip to the cinema.