British actor and director Richard Ayoade follows up his sublime black comedy Submarine (2010) with intense and brooding sophomore feature The Double (2013), an adaptation of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella of the same name. Jesse Eisenberg (soon to take the mantle of Lex Luthor in Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice) stars as Simon James, a meek and apprehensive employee at a bizarre bureaucratic industrial office. He goes to work every day, boxed into a characterless cubicle. The office security guard reacts to poor Simon with great hostility, refusing to recognise him and requiring his ID, even though he has been an employee there for seven years.
Simon’s personal life is no different as he is abhorred by his mother (Phyllis Somerville), and made the subject of ridicule as he visits her at the residential home. A glimmer of light shines into Simon’s life in the form of fellow employee Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). He idolises her and watches her from afar, yet each attempt of a real physical interaction is constantly interrupted by other people, or the mechanisms of lifts, trains and such. The woman of his dreams remains oblivious to his attempted affections and the two only begin to converse upon the arrival of new employee – and Simon replica – James (Eisenberg again). The pair initially strike up a bond, until Simon eventually comes to the realisation that the double-dealing doppelgänger is completely taking over his fragile little life.
Ayoade undoubtedly wears his influences on his sleeve with gleeful pride and luckily for the viewer, the man’s got taste. The architecture of the ice cold industrial set is a mash-up of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), decorated with an icy colour palette. The action takes place in an industrious worm-farm, an Orwellian concrete jungle that symbolises the mind numbing routine of every humdrum, 9 to 5 existence and whilst, its unique vision is admirable, once the film’s initial slapstick humour subsides, the claustrophobia slowly emanates beyond the screen as events take a dark turn. Further discomfort is created via the meticulous sound detail where the influence of Angelo Badalamenti’s industrious score to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) proceeds to tickle the nerve endings. The comedy is gentle, rhythmic and perfectly choreographed, particularly in the moments of man against the machine.
Eisenberg, in arguably the most stretching role of his career to date, plays against himself with great assurance, breathing such life into both characters, that you forget you are watching the same actor. At times the extensive cameo performances become a little distracting and superfluous with Paddy Considine here and Chris Morris there, that you get the impression that Ayoade is just doing his mates a favour. The Double is visually impressive, remarkably stylish and delivered with the surreal aesthetic of Renee Magritte. However as talented as Ayoade proves he is here, the immaculate attention to style leaves the film lacking elsewhere. In a similar fashion to Denis Villeneuve’s Kafka-esque doppelgänger study Enemy (2013), The Double is a feast for the eyes, but may leave you as emotionally despondent as its subjects.
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