Richard Ayoade sophomore effort is a marked shift in direction from the British filmmaker’s well-received 2011 debut feature, the coming-of-age movie Submarine.
And that’s not by accident. Citing the eclectic oeuvre of Louis Malle as inspiration, Ayoade seeks to explore different facets of the cinematic image with every picture. For The Double he looks to Dostoevsky, with the 19th Century Russian writer here filtered through countless other informing notes, from Gilliam to Welles. That such matter is brought to the screen with a touch of the magpie is neatly intertextual. It’s Welles’s Kafka adaptation, The Trial that Ayoade’s film perhaps most closely resembles, with both sharing a general arc of a central figure attempting to make sense of their own identity in a world seemingly fractured from the inside out.
In The Double this central figure is one Simon James, an ordinary office worker so unremarkable that his colleagues don’t even notice when his precise doppelgänger appears one day. It’s a punchline of a premise, and one presented in a tone fitting, albeit a comic tone of the blackest variety. In portraying the invisible Simon James and his polar opposite, James Simon, Jesse Eisenberg delivers what essentially amounts to two different performances. The unhinged crosses streams with the conservative, the shy with the unabashed. It’s a great turn from the actor, and one which stretches him in ways thus far unseen. In keeping with the spirit of much of the work of Dostoevsky, Ayoade’s film sees grand themes playing out on an intimate canvas. Supporting players are relegated to the role of vessel more often than not, but such sweeping statements of figures seems quite appropriate.
This can initially be jarring, but once attuned to the vision it becomes an exciting space to be a spectator to. Fantastic set design leads said vision, with overt fixtures occupying the space, this world an image of an alterna-future posited against all logic and common sense. This world remains constantly dark (Ayoade even plays host to a midnight funeral to keep up the visual sentiment), while a magnificent, meticulous approach to the sound of the piece, in which elements abruptly cut out and sections serve to cause a confusing counter-narrative results in a hugely immersive endpoint.
Sound and vision combine to create an aura that stands firmly in the otherworldly, with the sense of timelessness (in the negative, as opposed to nostalgia) overwhelming. One can’t help but think of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Malle’s Black Moon and even Chaplin’s land of Tomainia comes to mind (for the second time this year, though I’m loathe to mention Ayoade’s name in the same breath as the American filmmaker to whom he is so often compared) when thinking of the kind of world in which The Double exists, a place out of time and space, but one rich with cine-literacy and a minefield for exploration.