After drawing critical approval for his directorial debut – an invigorating adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s cult 2008 novel ‘Submarine’, British comic-cum-filmmaker Richard Ayoade returns with sophomore feature The Double, taking as its source Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s dark, pre-Kafka novella but repositioning its nineteenth-century action to a more updated, if not wholly identifiable, moment and place in time. In it Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a withdrawn office cog whose incessant self-doubt dictates a life spent at the mercy of his oppressive surroundings – a faceless, disregarding work environment matched by a suicide-heavy apartment complex – and renders him incapable of vocalising his affection for copygirl Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a similar casualty of crippling invisibility and isolation.
Contrasting with Simon’s wallflower-esque demeanour is James Simon (the titular double, also played by Eisenberg), an alluring, self-assured new employee who also happens to be Simon’s exact mirror image, a fact that no one other than Simon either notices or seems to care about. Quickly appropriating every facet of his binary opponent’s life, from his apartment and chances of promotion to Hannah’s affections, James excessively personifies Simon’s failings in extremis, forcing the latter to take drastic action or risk fading even further into the sidelines.
Playing out in a foreboding, hermetically sealed yet indistinct timeframe characterised by a reverberating soundscape, severe architecture (think David Lynch’s Eraserhead melded with Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956)) and, for undisclosed reasons, sixties Japanese pop, The Double is a complete change of pace for Ayoade, whose Submarine (2010) fizzed with romance and nostalgia for a progressive, lovelorn adolescence. It was also long in development, as, after being attracted to Avi Korine’s (brother of Harmony) initial screenplay in 2007, Ayoade embarked on a long-term collaboration that spanned throughout production of his first film, via a couple of Vampire Weekend music videos, until the pair settled on a suitable draft. “I read the book, and what seemed interesting to me was the really unique premise and idea of this double that no one else notices. That seemed very funny to me”, Ayoade opines, and it is indeed a strong foundation for pitch black, almost sadistic humour, where each opportunity for expertly timed jokes come at Simon’s anxious expense, though not in an overtly antagonistic register.
If Submarine (“the only thing of that length I had written on my own”) radiated with soggy optimism, The Double appears immediately more cynical and dank in theme, narrative and tone, yet nestled amongst each literary source material’s preoccupations with the unrequited love of two lost souls – however explicit – is a psychological insight into an antisocial male protagonist. So how did he find going about adjusting Dostoyevsky to his own sensibilities? “It’s really interesting because you have something much bigger to start from than how the film ends up, where it being inevitably distilled – or, depressingly, when things are omitted – can blindside you as to how successful it is in one medium. There’s something counterintuitive about having to alter a story that already works very well in its own form, and trying to make visual equivalences is quite difficult. Actually being on set is really involving and kind of horrible at the same time, but also really privileging and one is lucky and happy to be doing it. But it’s very hard to feel like you’re getting it right”.
One way of loosely presenting the original text’s key ideas is the construction of a particularly distinctive, dystopic verisimilitude, where the world Ayoade and production designer David Crank create is wholly beyond compare, nor subject to identification as to when and where it actually takes place. Largely shot in an abandoned business estate in Crowthorne, Berkshire, and made up of props found in an old Holborn post sorting office, where low doorways slotted perfectly into the image of Simon’s forbidding workplace, this stark, absurdist visual palette is both a contrast and renovation of the social world of imperialist Russia depicted by Dostoyevsky. “The underlying idea was that it was meant to look like the future as imagined by someone in the 50s, so it would be fundamentally wrong, not historically accurate and not something that would happen now or in the future or in the past. So it’s a major left turn of some kind”.
Taking place in an inarticulate metropolis of encumbering machinery, where the only source of light is artificial and nightmarish alt-logic reigns supreme, Ayoade consciously weighs in on previous representations of the office space in cinema – “A repository for broken dreams”, akin to The Apartment (1960) and Welles’ The Trial (1962) – by illustrating it as an alternate reality “where people still toiled under a bureaucratic system and were subject to tyrannical bosses”, in this case the tough Mr. Papadopoulos and seldom seen The Colonel, played by Wallace Shawn and James Fox respectively (two of many notable cameos sprinkled throughout). This allows for the romantic subplot, a miniscule component in the novella buried in and amongst the internalised headspace of its protagonist, between Simon and Hannah to transcend and negate the alienation of the office environment, offering both a narrative spine and a cause for a redemptive showdown. Asked why he enlarged this aspect of the story, Ayoade admits “while I completely emotionally relate to Simon, what causes his disintegration doesn’t quite feel like the same cosmology that we occupy, where you can unravel that much through status at work. I could be wrong because I don’t have a proper job, but it doesn’t feel as important as not being recognised by someone who you love, which seems to be far more dangerous or of a threat to you.”
Though romance ostensibly tinges the central conceit, The Double is by and large a disorientating blend of intricate existential lunacy à la Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam at his most introspective (though Brazil (1985) is an obvious thematic equivalent), a sad treatise on loneliness that gives Eisenberg another opportunity to seamlessly and impressively disappear into two contrasting roles custom-made for him. It also proves once again that Ayoade is both astutely conscious of the language of cinema and a filmmaking name to take note of, continuing a Bergman-esque ambiguousness in terms of the geographical and temporal backdrops of his features that render them a sort of quasi-naturalistic peek into an alternative universe. An idiosyncratic auteurist stamp, yet how significant a tool is this approach? “There’s something funny about films that can so accurately present reality in minute detail that there’s often so much information that doesn’t feel appropriate, to the extent that I prefer ‘Old Hollywood’ to ‘On-Location Hollywood’”, foregrounding visual construction over naturalism. “For some films you don’t want too much reality because it gets in the way of the story. It felt appropriate to these projects, but I could imagine doing something that was contemporary and was in that vein if it felt right”.
Though The Double is European in flavour, with inflections of Edward Hopper, Magritte, and the cinematic output of Aki Kaurismaki, Louis Malle and Roy Andersson, Ayoade does cite The Dardennes Brothers and Lenny Abrahamson’s recent hit What Richard Did (2012) as contemporary examples of a – however inevitably heightened – organic style he could see himself adopting if the right film came along, though he’s quick to emphasise the pleasures found in the assembled world of Jacques Tati. Bashfully silent on the topic of future directorial outings, The Double is solid proof of Ayoade’s considerable talent at the helm of the lens, though ardent fans may be waiting a long time to see him on the other side. Asked if he would ever direct himself, he staunchly refuses to even consider it: “I couldn’t imagine not being able to think of someone better. There would have to be such an outbreak of influenza or a global strike for that to be remotely possible. And I would be a scab at that stage and there would be other things to deal with”, he says in customarily self-deprecating, deadpan fashion. It could be the premise of his next film.