Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Double

There’s a poem by Adrian Henri called ‘Welcome to my World’. It goes like this:

“Don’t find me”
snarl the poems
from the headlines
   “Ne me trouvez
 pas” cry
the objects
from the beaches.

Watching Richard Ayoade’s ‘The Double’, I was assailed by a similar sentiment … except here it was meaning and subtext daring me to explicate them; theme and imagery and symbolism offering me to come and write a review if I think I’m smart enough.

I’m probably not smart enough, but here goes anyway.

In a subgenre that’s not exactly crowded with entries, ‘The Double’ is the oddest and most iconoclastic Dostoyevsky adaptation I’ve ever seen, easily eclipsing the meta-fictive noodlings of Karoly Makk’s 1997 take on ‘The Gambler’ (an account of the writing of Dostoyevsky’s confessional novel featuring a film-within-a-film version of the novel itself). But whereas ‘The Gambler’ was written under the gun to fulfil a contractual obligation – and, in the pantheon of the great author’s work, something of a drawn breath between the huge mature works ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Idiot’ – ‘The Double’ dates from much earlier in his career: his second published novel, in fact, following the well-intentioned ‘Poor Folk’. It’s also a bloody hard slog to get through, mainly because much of the text is an engagement with and, to a certain degree, a refutation of works by Gogol, whereas Dostoyevsky’s later works (i.e. anything from ‘Notes From Underground’ onwards) find him utilizing what is entirely his own voice.

Suffice it to say, that Ayoade’s film retains a structural touchstone with the novel – in both, it’s about a third of the way through before the protagonist’s doppelgänger shows up – as well as exploring the idea of a nascent kinship between them before jealousy and rivalry spins the narrative towards its psychological fallout; likewise, the polarities in their personalities and how these affect their progression, or otherwise, through the rigid hierarchy of the bureaucratic system is well represented; other than that, Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine joyously go their own way with the material.

Here’s the basic set-up: low-ranking clerk Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) has the day from hell: he loses his briefcase after the doors of an underground train close on it; his ID is inside, which throws him into conflict with the jobsworth security guard at his office; his attempts to connect with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the ethereal girl in the reprographics department, are constantly thwarted; the bills for his mother’s retirement home are increasing; and a neighbour from the opposite side of the courtyard cheerlessly waves at Simon before he leaps to his death.

Simon witnesses this as an aftermath to watching Hannah, who also lives on the opposite side of the courtyard, through a telescope. Hannah spends her evenings creating small paintings which she immediate tears into pieces and throws into the garbage chute. Simon religiously retrieves and reassembles them and pastes them into a scrapbook. Simon is arguably the most asexual and sensitive voyeur in the history of film. Carl Bohm in ‘Peeping Tom’ would probably slap him upside the head and have a few words.

It’s just after the suicide that Simon has his first glimpse of the doppelganger. The next day, at work, James Simon (Eisenberg, playing the alter ego with an incredibly subtle sureness of touch) is Simon’s new colleague and making waves in the department before he’s barely through the door. James is loquacious where Simon is tongue-tied, confident where Simon is shy, a lothario where Simon is virginal. Simon accepts what he’s told and doesn’t argue. James gets what he demands. Initially, Simon is fascinated and responds enthusiastically to an evening out where they run the gamut of being rude to waitresses, getting drunk and instigating a bar-room brawl. Then James offers to assist in Simon’s wooing of Hannah but when Simon inevitably screws things up, James steps in with predictable consequences.

So far, so Fyodor-meets-‘Fight Club’, and I sat in Nottingham’s Broadway cinema and with some degree of satisfaction mapped out a reading of the film that tied Dostoyevsky’s psychological character study to Tyler Durden’s patented brand of FTW wish-fulfilment. I’d pinpointed Simon’s waving back at his suicidal neighbour as the point at which he thinks “that’s me” (he is, after all, the quintessential nobody: a colleague describes him as “not particularly noticeable”) and creates a super-self – a facsimile from the id – in order to survive … only to engender a living, breathing and reprehensively popular avatar of the genus “be careful what you wish for”.

And while there are definite shades of ‘Fight Club’, albeit with its corollaries cloaked in caesuras where Fincher’s film veritably signposts them, Ayoade throws in more than one curveball that forces an entirely different reading. I can’t remember that last time a film wrong-footed me so often and I responded to its game-playing with such big-hearted adoration rather than simply being pissed off at the filmmakers’ irresolution and/or clever-cleverness. Much of the fun of ‘The Double’ – and may I send out a resounding accolade to Ayoade for pitching it as a comedy: played straight, the film would be unbearably depressing – owes to its melange of cultural references, and how indeterminate its setting. Is the mise-en-scene how the future would have looked in the 50s, or a vision of Orwell filtered through Terry Gilliam? Indeed, where exactly is ‘The Double’ set? The ambulances that show up for the most crucial scenes scream Britain in the 1970s; the diner Simon and James patronise is pure 60s American; their office is like Dostoyevky meets Zamyatin at a midnight screening of ‘Brazil’; the apartment block could have stepped in, equally, from Mike Leigh or Lukas Moodysson.

Muddying the waters still further is the cheesy ‘Blake’s Seven’-style TV show Simon watches. You’d be forgiven for thinking that its gung-ho hero, played in a frankly bonkers but hilarious cameo by Paddy Considine, is the model for his conjuration of James as his alter ego (if, in fact, Simon actually does author his alter ego: there is, not evidence exactly, but suggestion to the contrary) but the final correlation paints a different picture. The last we see of Simon’s TV idol, he’s unarmed and on his back, his nemesis declaring “You’ll die like a snake.” Later, facing up to Hannah after she’s discovered the Simon/James duplicity, he winces as she spits “You’re a snake.”

Other correlations speckle the film, either in its rhymed scenes à la ‘Deep Red’ (for all that Adoaye is being compared to Wes Anderson by the critics du jour there’s more of early Argento in his mind-fuckery and bravura camera movements, particularly a couple of fog-wreathed tracking shots through nocturnal exteriors), or its sound design (‘The Double’ boasts arguably the most specific attention to foley since Du Welz’s ‘Vinyan’), or its occasional, almost electrical, flashes of colour. There is a precision about the film’s use of blue – Hannah’s photocopier emits it instead of white; Simon orders a Coke at the diner and is given a glass of blue water instead; blenders of some stranger blue cocktail screech away when Simon tries to eavesdrop on James and Hannah at a restaurant – that I’m convinced is deliberate and coded and quite possible the key to the whole thing.

But like much of ‘The Double’, a second and perhaps a third or fourth viewing almost demand themselves in order to tease out the suspicions, ellipses and enigmas that tantalise on a first viewing. Perhaps there is no final and definitive take on the film. If that is the case, then Ayoade has succeeded brilliantly in creating a perfectly paranoid parable for our times. And what’s truly breathtaking is that this fearlessly accomplished piece of work is only his second outing as director, following the already accomplished and quirkily memorable debut ‘Submarine’. God know what he’s going to do next, but I’m first in the queue when it’s released.

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