Fascination, Alienation and Isolation, Courtesy of The DoublePosted: May 11, 2014
Arthouse movies are always a difficult beast to wrangle for me: should I accept the movie when it’s clearly trying for something outside the traditional realm of cinematic storytelling, or should I hold every movie to the same standard of narrative structure? I still have yet to arrive at a clear answer, but overall it generally comes down to a matter of taste and circumstance. Some movies are able to eschew or undercut the storytelling tendencies that I hold most dear, and yet I appreciate and enjoy them anyway. The Double is just such a movie, one that does so many different things so well that it prevents itself from succeeding in exactly the way I want it to… but it’s still a damn good watch, and a very fascinating piece of craftsmanship from Richard Ayoade.
At its core, The Double is a movie about loneliness and lack of identity, and trying to find yourself amid the monotony of everyday life. Ayoade and Jesse Eisenberg capture this feeling perfectly: Simon’s monologue about feeling like someone could push their arm right through him is a great summation of that sort of existentialist angst (even if they go a step too far with the Pinocchio reference). It’s something that I can certainly identify with, having felt that way at times myself. The film makes you infuriated on Simon’s behalf, wondering what he needs to do to be noticed by his judgmental boss (the inimitable Wallace Shawn) and his angelic crush (Mia Wasikowska, continuing her terrific year). Ayoade also perfectly externalizes that emotional struggle with the vaguely dystopic world that he constructs, helping to emphasize Simon’s sense of anonymity and invisibility. Combining Simon’s personal struggles with the seemingly pointless corporate machinery around him creates a potent atmosphere that is fully immersive and fascinating in its construction.
Once Simon’s doppelgänger James comes into the picture, things really get cooking, with Eisenberg trading barbs and underhanded wordplay with himself, as James starts manipulating Simon into giving his life over. And as James’ presence drives Simon’s troubles to greater and greater depths, Simon begins to become more and more assertive and decisive in an attempt to try and regain control of his life, until he and James become linked on a metaphysical level. It’s a progression that shows that Simon’s angst and loneliness are more his responsibility than anyone else’s, and that even in such an oppressive and soul-crushing environment that it’s up to him whether or not he can really exist or not.
Unfortunately, Ayoade does both things so well that they end up conflicting with each other. The off-kilter style and tone of the movie ended up preventing me from fully connecting with the emotional core of the film, even as it emphasizes that very core. The result is an oddly intellectual exercise, where I fully understood the point and arc of the story without fully immersing myself in its emotionality (even though I found myself fully immersed in the world). It sometimes left me a bit cold, despite the aching emotional longing that drives Simon and the film around him.
While Ayoade’s overall success does keep the various elements of the film from coming together fully (even when they are designed to support each other), the quality of those elements is still high enough to make the film more than worthwhile. The visual aesthetic of the movie is gorgeously dingy, with a nice retro-tech feel and utilitarian vibe that recalls classic dystopian stories without overdoing it. The color, sound design, music, shot composition and acting are all right on the money, and all feed together to build a well-calibrated machine of style. Though I’ve yet to watch Submarine, his first film, based on this alone Ayoade definitely has a clear vision and a great deal of confidence in it, and I can’t wait for him to apply such a vision to something new, and use his great sense of composition and world-building (of the more subtle variety) to craft a fully emotional experience as well as a sensory one. But in the meantime, I am more than happy to dive into the twisty, cold world of The Double, and I’ll probably do it again soon.