Richard Ayoade’s strikingly evocative directorial style was clearly evidenced in Submarine. Though his second film is markedly bleaker, his artistic talent is still palpable. The Double is adapted from Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella of the same name, in which a timid titular councillor is confronted by his own extrovert doppelgänger as he descends into madness. Ayoade’s lonely office worker is Simon James, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Unnoticed by his colleagues and ignored by his love interest, Simon winces meekly through life until his confident counterpart, James Simon (also Eisenberg), arrives.
The opening scene depicts the interior of a train carriage hurtling through darkness to some unnamed destination. Flickers of dank green light pick out forms in the shadows, and the shriek of wheels against metal tracks is exaggerated to the point that it stings. As Simon sits rigidly upright, briefcase balanced atop his lap, a faceless figure challenges him, taunting “You’re in my place” until he obliges and stands for the rest of his journey. The scene is instantly engaging and disconcerting, and the sense of dread that lingers exhaustingly throughout the film is fully established.
The stagnant, corporate nightmare in which Ayoade’s characters dwell is painted in lurid colour and deep shadow – sunlight is seemingly non-existent. The set is grimy and industrial, yet the well-considered, strange lighting renders a touch of the surreal. The sound is just as well designed. Whirs and clicks of machinery are enhanced to extreme volumes, occasionally muffling the characters’ dialogue. Andrew Hewitt’s urgent score comes in bursts, tense and ominous in equal measure. Consequently, well-measured silences achieve their full effect. The resulting atmosphere is oppressive, claustrophobic and extremely uncomfortable, and in this respect the film is a complete success.
Eisenberg plays both characters distinctly, but with eerie similarity. Their differences are not exaggerated; rather, James retains Simon’s ill fitting suit and soft spoken tones. The performances add a still more sinister aspect to Simon’s colleagues’ denial that the two are at all alike, and the film thus remains an examination of its protagonist’s psyche despite the paranormal possibilities that might be implied by its other-worldly feeling.
However, as with Submarine, the evident care taken in setting the scene highlights a surprising lack of substance. It appears that preoccupation with painting the picture has led to a laxity in the script. The film has been widely described as being a black comedy but the jokes, though clearly visible, are generally lost in its density. Also, crucially, there is no indication as to what there may be to fight for in this dank dystopia. With little suggestion of hope or light to which the characters may aspire, even the love story is tinged with a kind of miserable apathy.
Dostoevsky wrote The Double as a young man still very much enthralled by the works of his predecessors, and it is now often viewed as a gateway text. While it borrows heavily from Gogol, it also exhibits the beginnings of his interest in the psychological complexities of his characters. Some years after its publication, Dostoevsky wrote in A Writer’s Diary, “Most decidedly, I did not succeed with that novel; however, its idea was rather lucid, and I have never expressed in my writings anything more serious. Still, as far as form was concerned, I failed utterly.”
Ayoade’s film has received criticism for the transparency of its influences – Terry Gilliam and David Lynch in particular – and its script is certainly lacking. It does, however, demonstrate the director’s considerable talent for the evocative. Though The Double suffers for its singular focus, it excels in certain areas. Hopefully, this will be Ayoade’s gateway piece, as his potential as a film maker is evident.