Published Oct 06, 2014During the brief director interview included with the Blu-ray release of Dostoevsky adaptation The Double, Richard Ayoade notes what attracted him to the story. Noting the conspiratorial sensibilities of writers like Huxley and Orwell, Ayoade states that he always found the detached existential sensibilities of Gogol and Dostoevsky more aligned with his worldview. In The Double, the introduction of a doppelganger as impetus for narrative development and as a character-shaping device isn't so much an elaborate social coup as it is a reiteration of our individual irrelevance. What appealed to Ayoade wasn't the gimmick; rather, it was the fact that no one within this constructed universe seems to notice or care when the protagonist suddenly has a twin following him around everywhere.
Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), a meek, diffident clerk at a deliberately undefined, hyper-realized corporation (of sorts) is ignored and implicitly marginalized by everyone in his life. At work, his boss asks him if he's new — even though he's been working there for years — and, outside of work, his mother expresses almost complete indifference towards him. As is the standard for those forced into the periphery of society, Simon lives within the spectrum of fantasy, projecting his desires onto Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), an idiosyncratic co-worker and neighbour that he perpetually spies on and obsesses over despite having no window into her identity or persona beyond what he sees in a superficial capacity.
Before James, the titular "double," comes into the picture — a physical mirror image but mental opposite, having the confidence and swagger that Simon only dreams of — Ayoade sets up a surrealist universe that's both aesthetically and thematically apropos for such an anomaly to occur without alarm. The dramatic colours, dreary industrial backdrop, candid, askew perspectives and overwhelming sense of isolation — even in shared public spaces — combine to create a sense of existential dread on their own. There's no warmness or comfort in this world — just sparse living environments, alienating workplace conditions and a sense of interchangeability amidst a world of similarly irrelevant, albeit similarly detached, people.
Where such a surreal, intensely realized world could easily symbolize the dehumanizing force of a Communist regime, Ayoade is careful to evade political posturing in favour of individual alienation, reminding us of Simon's self-awareness, noting that he's very much conscious of what he could do to obtain the things in life he desires. This makes the introduction of his polar opposite more of a commentary on identity and individuality than anything explicitly social.
James, being socially apt and confident, is able to quickly make an impression with Hannah and Simon's boss. Just as Simon speculates early in the film, these more abrasive, extroverted attributes ultimately do get him the things he desires. But, as is evident here from the separation of Simon and James into two characters (even though everyone in this world refuses to acknowledge their aesthetic similarities), the question becomes one of personal integrity. Though Simon learns that he could ultimately have what he wants if he was willing to modify his personality, there's a personal void within this basic quandary. If he needs to become someone else to get what he wants, does that negate him as a person? If the world is unwilling to accept him for who he is, does that suggest an inherent fault in that world?
Ayoade presents this inner conflict with the externalized drama that the central gimmick allows. Simon and James initially get along and even help each other along the way before Simon starts to feel alienation and even hatred towards his double for eschewing all of his values in favour of externalized social performance. He also starts to realize that the objects and signifiers of desire looming just out of his reach previously weren't quite as ideal in reality as they were in his mind's eye, which reiterates the question of modifying identity versus modifying the world surrounding it.
While all of this makes for a compelling, consistently thought-provoking viewing experience, the fact that Ayoade approaches it with a sense of humour, balancing the despondency of everything with a hilariously askew perspective, grounds The Double, keeping it from getting too heavy or pretentious. It's a shame that the Blu-ray supplements are so cursory, but since the actual film is so engrossing, it's forgivable. (D Films)