We always knew that Richard Ayoade was up to something. Someone who hadn’t been paying attention for the last ten years might be understandably confused that Moss off The IT Crowd is suddenly trying to pass himself off as a director of sombre art films. Ayoade really debuted a couple of years earlier however, when he “wrote, directed, and starred in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” establishing him as a very strange and delicious fish indeed. Anyone requiring proof that he’s now the real deal as a filmmaker need look no further.
The Double (2013) takes the bones of its plot from an 1846 novel by one of those Russian guys – the ones whose names alone make you feel stupid when you hear them. Those bones are: a lonely, paranoid man named Golyadkin lives a life of isolation and bitterness, toiling in a menial job. He pines hopelessly after women who barely know he exists. One day an exact double of this man appears and begins living alongside him – but seeming to do a much better job of it. Golyadkin becomes more paranoid and isolated than ever, his behaviour growing increasingly erratic until – partly due to the manipulation of his double – he is committed to an insane asylum.
Ayoade takes the action out of 19th century St Petersburg, giving us instead a deliberately anonymous “Someplace, Anytime.” The film’s world has a lingering flavour of Soviet brutality, combined with playful “retro-futurist” technology –reaching modern ends by archaic means – which has made a lot of people think of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). One thing the two films surely have in common is that the dystopian vibe here is so over the top, it feels more like a piss-take of the concept than anything. Squads of police roam the city cataloguing an epidemic of suicides. The headline of a newspaper reads simply “COLLAPSE”.
The world-building of the film is minimalist, focused on making the slice of life in front of us convincing and content to only hint at what lies beyond it. This world casually mixes disparate elements from ours – Chinese coins are inserted into American-style jukeboxes which play 1960’s Japanese pop songs– suggesting, as in Blade Runner, that the barriers between cultures have broken down over time. The kitsch bits and pieces of dressing, the obscure pop songs, and the snatches of brutalist British architecture all add up to a convincing, compelling environment. We are never told the story behind this bizarre world, but it’s enough that we believe there is one.
The highlight of this is the briefly-glimpsed TV show, The Replicator, which Simon enjoys. With cheap sets and special effects, and cheesy synth theme-tune, it recalls Darkplace in evoking an absolutely spot-on spoof of something that never quite actually existed. Not every bit of the film’s world feels totally solid, but I absolutely believe in that show. I believe in people watching it, and loving it because – like that Eastern European wedding band we see crooning American folk songs – it’s simply the best they have to work with.
The film’s dystopian tone crystallises in the people who surround its protagonist Simon, whose world is populated by a mass of thoughtless, callous sociopaths. It’s in this, rather than its setting, that the film truly departs from its source material. The novel’s Golyadkin is a self-absorbed and distrustful man, always ready to see malice and conspiracy in others even before his double appears – but his paranoia is not a reflection of the world around him. The narrator records Golyadkin’s thoughts and actions with a harshly knowing eye, referring to him sarcastically as “our hero” as he flinches and glances sadly through life. The appearance of his double partway through the story does not make him much more paranoid, desperate, or doomed than he already is at the start of the book and, although his ultimate fate is awful, we can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have ended up in an asylum anyway.
Dostoyevsky’s project is to put the reader inside the head of a man who feels he is the only good person in the world, while showing us that he is in fact a delusional arsehole. After all, who else could walk around with that sort of an image of themselves? Despite an intense insight into his feelings of persecution, the novel harshly insists that Golyadkin’s is a self-inflicted torture.
Ayoade’s Simon on the other hand, is a decent man entirely justified in his paranoia. It isn’t even paranoia, in fact, because his whole world really is out to get him. Waitresses ignore his orders, doormen refuse to recognise him, and even lift doors only seem to close when he tries to step through them. At one point while dutifully visiting his mother at her nursing home like a good son, one of her fellow inmates remarks out of nowhere that he is a “strange boy” – the implicit joke being that it is *she* who is strange. She is even credited as “Strange woman,” confirming that unlike the novel, the film is firmly on the side of its protagonist. Simon is not the problem – his world is.
This bias is reflected in Jesse Eisenberg’s dual performance, which is more than a little uneven in Simon’s favour. He excels as the fragile loner – peering down his telescope with nostrils quivering like a rabbit’s, or dancing down his corridor with nervy excitement after buying a present for a girl he barely knows. His anxiousness, embarrassment, and longing for companionship are painfully believable. However, although the technical effects used to double him are nicely understated – with no big “Hey look, there’s TWO of ‘em!!” scenes – there are serious problems when Eisenberg is required to play the aggressive, oversexed James.
Starting out assertive and confident he quickly becomes an obscene caricature, lecturing Simon on the do’s and dont’s of riding a motorbike with another man (“The only exceptions are drive-by shootings, bomb-throwing and purse-snatchings. Anything else is gay”), and expounding his personal philosophies on women (“I would tear the asshole off an elephant for a piece of trim I wanted that bad”). It’s hilarious to hear Jesse Eisenberg saying lines like these with a straight face, but that’s exactly the problem – it’s funny because we don’t believe in a million years that he ever would say those things. The more belligerent and laddish the character becomes, the clearer it is how far those qualities are from Eisenberg’s natural range.
In the original novel, our “hero” is not a good man threatened by his evil twin. The double here is something akin to the ghosts who visited Ebenezer Scrooge; a reminder to Golyadkin that he is anything but a good man, and must mend his ways or suffer for it. It is implied that he once abandoned a young woman who was set to marry him, and still carries a secret stain of guilt. In one early chapter he spends a morning rushing round various shops ordering up fine clothes, furniture and other goods, promising to return and pay for them later. In fact he neither pays any money nor takes any goods, but seems to act out this bizarre ritual for its own sake.
Ayoade’s double is too exaggerated to be a reflection of anyone’s dark side, let alone that of our meek, angelic hero (no quote marks needed). Making Simon an entirely sympathetic character, and reducing his double to a buffonish cartoon character, seems to risk a loss of direction – cutting the heart out of the story, and leaving it a fable with no moral. However, it is really a sign that the film has different priorities to its source. The Double is not concerned with guilt at all, but rather with loneliness – and the desperate lengths people will go to in attempting to escape it.
The film opens with the suicide, witnessed by Simon, of another lonely man unable to find love. He watches as the bodybag is loaded into an ambulance, Andrew Hewitt’s sparse but powerful score giving the act of self-destruction its own trudging theme on piano and strings. The idea that Simon might follow suit crops up throughout the film as a seam of jet-black humour, but becomes a serious proposition as his despair deepens. After his double has seduced Hannah and she rejects him as a “snake,” we cut to him in an underpass spontaneously giving his shoes away to a homeless man – the return of Hewitt’s ‘suicide motif’ warning us that this is more than just a simple act of charity.
Without Hannah he has no reason to live. The reason Simon’s relationship with his actual double get sidelined may be because she is the true focus of the film; making Simon painfully aware of his loneliness, while offering the tantalising possibility of an escape. The mischievous James is only really significant as a possible threat to that human connection: a prospect so rare and precious in this world that it too has its own musical theme. Hewitt’s soft and sweet piano motif recurs several times; born hesitantly as Simon watches Hannah at home, it develops fully when he brings James home and puts him to bed, truly happy to have found what he thinks is a friend.
After realising the power he holds over his doppelganger, Simon embraces the dark side and concocts a scheme of his own. His plan is never fully explained, but emerges organically from what has gone before: after incapacitating the twin he steals his ID card and goes to his apartment, intending to fake an attempted suicide. He will survive, having already called an ambulance, and live on with James’ perfect life – finally close to Hannah. His double will die in his place as the lowly Simon, who has now conveniently been deleted from “the system” and will not be missed.
It’s a clever twist on the traditional ending to the “doppelganger” myth, in which seeing their double condemns a person to death. Was Simon really the deadly “double” of James, all along? It’s also a satisfyingly grim payoff for a film which often feels like it is about to give in to trite romantic clichés, but never does. We are so used to the stereotypes of lonely bumbling losers, who pine over beautiful women from afar, as elements of the trite setup to a predictably happy ending. Ayoade is determined to let loneliness and misery have a fair shake, and the film lets Simon go through with a plan which makes suicide his only escape from unbearable isolation – either through reuniting with Hannah, or simply through death.
Ultimately the film leaves ambiguous which of these is taking place. We leave him lying crippled in an ambulance with both Hannah and “The Colonel,” the iconic, Big Brother-style overlord of his corporation, who addresses him fondly by the name “Simon.” Is he using this as a first name – which, as the two have never met, would suggest that this is all a hallucination – or is it a surname, being used more formally to address the favoured employee he has met several times? The ambivalence isn’t just artsy deflection, but emphasises that, for Simon, it doesn’t really matter which is true, since he would rather die with the approval and warmth he craves than live on as a “ghost”.