With “The Double,” English writer/director and sometimes-comedian Richard Ayoade establishes himself as more than just the Wes Anderson acolyte we first met with his quirky 2010 directorial debut feature “Submarine.”
Set somewhere outside of time, this 2013 TIFF premiere stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James, a joyless, virtually invisible data clerk whose life is but an endless chain of hours, shuttling back and forth between a dead-end desk job, where he’s mostly ignored, and his spartan apartment in a cluttered industrial tenement. His coworkers regard him as “a bit of a nonperson,” but something like life sparks within him when he spies Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), on his morning commute — and again at night, from the handy vantage point of his window via telescope.
A Kafkaesque rigamarole of petty bureaucracy and life’s little obstacles set the tone for this eerie dark comedy: Simon can’t get into his own building because the security guard doesn’t recognize him, he’s thrown out of an office party because rumor has it he doesn’t even work there, and his own shrewish mother is off her rocker in a depressing nursing home. Gliding over all is a shadowy figure known as The Colonel, whose Orwellian PSAs remind the world, “There’s no such thing as special people. Just people.”
But things get even weirder when the new guy in the office is a man called James Simon, the mirror inverse of Simon’s name and also his spitting likeness. Simon’s doppelganger even wears the same drab, oversized suit, but what’s worse is that James is far more charming and charismatic. He starts taking credit for Simon’s work — and whatever it is that he does, no one seems to know — kissing the ass of his moody toad of a boss (Wallace Shawn) and even, oh the horror, making advances on Hannah, a lonesome waif desperate for a human touch. From anyone but Simon, that is, who she regards as “creepy” and a “snake.”
The endless loop of coincidences and misunderstandings mount, as Simon and James try to one-up each other through one stunning set piece after the next. The visual tone of “The Double” is a little art deco, a little steampunk, a lot of noir, but also its own strange animal. I thought of Orson Welles’ Kafka adaptation “The Trial,” in which Anthony Perkins runs in place as the world around relentlessly persecutes him without explanation. And like that film, “The Double” also grounds its noirish premise of stolen identity in a spooky industrial landscape of malevolent smokestacks, creaking pipes, leaky faucets and rows of archaic machinery that produce endless reels of photocopies.
This isn’t the first time an emerging punk auteur has adapted Fyodor Dostoevsky’s little-read novella “The Double.” In 1968, just before his breakout “The Conformist,” Bernardo Bertolucci tackled this surreal tale about a lowly office worker’s psychotic break in “Partner,” starring the pretty French actor Pierre Clementi — who actually looks quite like Eisenberg, whose terrific performance balances the easily frustrated neurosis of Simon with the smooth debonair of the smarmy James.
“The Double” also shares DNA with Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy.” Coincidentally, that film also premiered at TIFF and with two doppelgänger thrillers at the fest, they may have cancelled each other out buzz-wise. While both deal in doubles and woman-troubles, Ayoade’s singular vision more prominently brings to mind Gilliam’s “Brazil,” with its themes of dilapidated identity, and the bleakly gorgeous, almost handmade quality to the artful production design.
A tour de force of editing, lensed in vivid chiaroscuro by Erik Wilson — and not to mention featuring a killer chamber score by Andrew Hewitt — “The Double” is a cinematic swoon, certainly one of the most imaginative and riveting head trips to come along in some time.
“The Double” is now streaming on Netflix.