Tag Archives: Jesse Eisenberg

Richard Ayoade discusses ‘The Double’ (interview piece for CineVue)

40 (Originally posted here)
(Review for ‘The Double’ found here)

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 In it Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a withdrawn office cog whose incessant self-doubt dictates a life spent at the mercy of his oppressive surroundings – a faceless, disregarding work environment matched by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.

Notes on: To Rome With Love

(Woody Allen, 2012)

A typically all-star cast assemble to imbalanced effect in Woody Allen’s 2012 offering To Rome With Love, a jovially lightweight attempt at revisiting the anthology approach to filmmaking which brought his Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) a reasonable amount of acclaim. TRWL is not as consistent or consistently funny as that film (an early paradigm of his retrospective ‘early funny’ period), but it does see Allen bringing himself back into a version of the present day (no matter how disparate the four timelines appear to be) after Midnight in Paris’ (2011) obsessions with the past. It’s all very twee and inoffensively enjoyable, combining passé ruminations on life, sex, love, marriage and celebrity with yet another picture postcard aesthetic idealisation of a great city: this time the titular Rome.

Making a career out of condensing and replaying his auteurist idols’ thematics (and occasionally their cinematographic attitudes) for his own body of work – though fitting them with his own metaphysical concerns and sense of humour, this is Allen sculpting another paean to his cinematic poster boy Federico Fellini, his own Roma (1972) so to speak.

Giving himself his first role since 2006’s docile Scoop, Allen stars in the film’s strongest story as Jerry, husband to Phyllis (Judy Davis, in her fourth Allen film) and father to Alison Pill’s Hayley, an American tourist whose visit to Rome is complemented by a relationship-cum-proposal to Italian pro bono lawyer Michelangelo. Initially reticent towards his prospective son-in-law’s family and their communist sensibilities, Jerry – an unhappily retired director of flamboyant opera, blissfully ignorant to his critics back in New York- becomes enamoured with Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo, a mortician who has the vocal range of an operatic wunderkind but only whilst in the shower. Jerry’s infatuation with bringing Giancarlo’s gift to the stage results in some curiously unorthodox (for Allen, at least) visual jokes that see a range of well-received productions centred on a showering Giancarlo, who scrubs and sings his heart out.

Elsewhere Alec Baldwin stars as John, a celebrated American architect who may or may not be linked to Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a student studying architecture in the Eternal City, who he bumps into seemingly at random. Inexplicably, John quickly becomes something of a mercurial figure, a wise Jiminy Cricket-like voice of reason quick to give relationship advice to Jack, his girlfriend Sally (a wasted Greta Gerwig) and her sultry friend Monica (Ellen Page), a pseudointellectual bisexual who channels the more caustic women in Allen’s back stock (Christina Ricci in Anything Else, etc). A similarly unanswerable plot is the one that sees Roberto Benigni’s lowly office drone suddenly becoming a star, hounded day and night by paparazzi who strive on uncovering his personal idiosyncrasies (“What did you have for breakfast?” “Do you wear boxers or briefs?”). Much like all the narrative ‘tricks’ that numerously appear in Allen’s high concept works, from The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) to the aforementioned Midnight in Paris, the mysterious and playful concepts depicted in these two segments go unexplained, with the emphasis and much of the comedy (when it arrives) being on their effects on the characters rather than on originations.

Finally, in a variation on Fellini’s The White Sheik (1952), Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi play Antonio and Milly respectively, a newlywed couple whose honeymoon in Rome immediately gets off on the wrong foot. Losing her way whilst searching for a hair salon (a sequence that sees Allen’s camera taking roving sweeps around the emblematic sites, bolstered by DP Darius Khondji’s translucent cinematography), Milly finds herself stumbling from a film set to the bed of its leading star to the arms of an armed robber, whilst Antonio falls prey to mistaken identity and has to pass off trashy hooker Anna (Penélope Cruz) as his newlywed to a gaggle of stern aunts and uncles. Easily the most disposable footnote in an altogether piecemeal film, this section highlights a lack of footing – in conjunction with the other three’s tighter plotting – whilst showing a square drawing of prostitution; Cruz’s Anna (a sobering flipside to her Oscar winning María Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)) is far removed from Allen’s previous and altogether more rounded prostitute characters, namely Mira Sorvino’s Academy Award winning Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and even Hazelle Goodman’s Cookie in Deconstructing Harry (1997), his only prominent role for a black actor.

Fragmented, distractible and in need of a more imaginative edit, To Rome With Love is lesser Woody Allen that exists in a lesser Allen epoch, a stage where every instalment in his healthy catalogue is given an unfair amount of critical conjecture. This does meander around a loose spine, the graphic equivalent of his process of sorting through and marrying together his draw full of notes and ideas (a work process shown in Robert B. Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary (2011)), but save for dated and laboured quips (and an ill-placed effects shot), there is a pay-off to the scattered mishmash.