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BFI London Film Festival Diary Day 5: ‘The Double,’ ‘We Are The Best!,’ ‘Nobody’s Daughter Haewon’ & More

BFI London Film Festival Diary Day 5: 'The Double,' 'We Are The Best!,' 'Nobody's Daughter Haewon' & More

In the run up to its release, I was absolutely champing at the bit to see “Submarine,” the debut feature from British comedian Richard Ayoade. I’d been a huge fan of the comic’s breakthrough work on “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” the buzz was electric, it appeared to tick all the right boxes in terms of influences, and had a distinctive visual look. And yet when it came to actually seeing the thing, even after loving the first half-hour or so, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. High expectations probably played a part, but ultimately, Ayoade was perhaps a little too in thrall to his influences, and the source material wasn’t quite strong enough to make it the classic coming-of-age tale I’d hoped it might be.

Three years on, and Ayoade’s back with “The Double,” [B-] a loose adaptation of the Dostoevsky tale co-written with Harmony Korine‘s brother Avi. Again, on paper, the film looked like it had the potential to land right in my sweet spot, and again, I came away loving singular elements of the film but finding the whole somewhat lacking. In a semi-dystopian retro-future-present, Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a mild-mannered office drone with a crush on his colleague/neighbor Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). It seems destined to be unrequited, until James Simon (also Eisenberg), the exact spit of Simon, starts working in the same office. The two initially become friends, but it soon seems that the new arrival is a more malevolent figure than he appeared.

If nothing else, “The Double” continues the great year that Jesse Eisenberg’s been having; he had a legitimate smash hit with “Now You See Me,” and has already given one great performance in Kelly Reichardt‘s “Night Moves.” Here, he gives not one, but two more terrific turns; the timid Simon carefully walks the line between being creepy and vulnerable with an inner rage and melancholy, while James is arrogant, lazy and charismatic. Eisenberg carefully delineates between the two to the extent that you can almost feel Simon shrinking into the background when he and his doppelganger share the same shot. He might have a defined persona, but he seems capable of pulling off infinite variations of it.

And so much of the rest of the film is a joy to behold. It looks marvelous, thanks to inventively drab production design from Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator David Crank (“The Master“) and careful cinematography from “Submarine” lenser Erik Wilson. It sounds great, with brash sound design and one of the year’s best scores from Andrew Hewitt. There’s a thematic richness that goes beyond a premise that, in theory, could end up being thin. And there are plentiful delights to be found in the eclectic supporting cast, from Wasikowska’s fragile love interest, adeptly staying this side of manic pixie dream girl territory, to return appearances from all the principles of “Submarine” (it’s impossible to dislike a film in which Paddy Considine essentially plays Doctor Who), to J. Mascis, of all people, as a janitor.

And yet, again, there’s something missing for me that stops me from wholeheartedly embracing it in the way I want to. It might be that the influences are again worn heavily on the sleeve (Gilliam, Kafka, the Coens, et al.), or it might be that it all feels a little too calculated. There are bursts of feeling here, but the immaculate look and sound are almost stifling; it’s very clever, but somewhat lacking in passion. And there’s a slight reluctance from Ayoade to kill his darlings, with a parade of cameos that, while fun, end up mostly being distracting. It may be that the film improves more on second viewing, and I’m sure that Ayoade has a truly great film in him somewhere, but here, the effort never becomes a sum of its considerable parts, unfortunately.

As buttoned-down and controlled as “The Double” is, Lukas Moodysson‘s terrific return to form “We Are The Best!” [B+] is loose and unrestrained, a throwback to the tone of his breakthroughs “Show Me Love” and “Together” rather than his increasing bleak subsequent work. Following a trio of 13-year-old Swedish girls in the late 1980s who form a punk band, the film has a featherlight tenor that could be mistaken for a kind of slightness.

But it’s so winningly authentic in its depiction of early adolescent hormones, friendship, love and rock ‘n’ roll, and so genuinely punk in spirit (there’s something especially defiant in making a film about a punk band set in the 1980s, when it was deeply out of fashion) that it lingers in the memory long past the end credits (which are also glorious). We’ll have more to say about this in a full review at some point soon, but we should also mention the wonderful trio of lead performances from Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, and Live LeMoyne (who, speaking of doubles, is an eerie lookalike of Léa Seydoux).

Unless you’re lucky enough to spend your whole year attending festivals, we all have blind spots in the cinema world; filmmakers who, despite their huge acclaim, have escaped your attention. Thanks in part to a lack of distribution in the U.K. for his work, Hong Sang-soo was one of mine until I caught the first of his two 2013 films, “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” [B+] at the festival. But given how much I like this one, it’s unlikely to be my last experience with the Korean filmmaker.

The story centers on the titular Haewon (Jeong Eun-chae), a college student whose mother is about to move to Canada, and who reconnects with the professor she’s been having an affair with. Like Moodysson’s film, it’s as light as air on the surface, but even more so here, that’s deceptive: though the tone is gentle, it’s smart, melancholy and rich, with Jeong giving a wonderful performance. I sense that there’s a lot more to unpack here, and I can’t wait to get caught up on the rest of Hong’s work.

A pair of buzzed-about U.S. indies also made their way over to the festival over the weekend in the shape of “Enough Said” [B] and “Afternoon Delight.” [D+]. The former has already proven to be a surprise hit, finally exposing Nicole Holofcener to a wider audience, and it’s about time: the director’s been putting out acutely observed, sharply funny films to apathetic audiences for too long.

In places, her latest brushes against Nancy Meyers territory in a way that she’s mostly avoided in the past. Even though the film isn’t entirely on her side, it’s still hard to care in any way about Toni Collette‘s sub-plot about firing her maid, and there’s the occasional rom-com-ish plot contrivance. But whenever the film focuses on the central late-in-love romance between Julia Louis-Dreyfus‘ masseuse and James Gandolfini‘s TV archivist, it soars; the pair share heaps of chemistry, and Holofcener is as insightful as ever about the genuine difficulties that can get in the way of relationships. Both leads are terrific; Gandolfini shows that we were only just starting to scratch the surface of his talents when he passed (if you don’t choke up a little at the film’s dedication to him—To Jim—you might be a robot ), and Louis-Dreyfus demonstrates that the movies have been missing out on her.

“Afternoon Delight” also features a great performance from an undersung actress, with regular scene-stealer Kathryn Hahn getting a chance to take a lead role. And on this evidence, it should have happened a long time ago: she’s tremendous, taking Jill Soloway‘s multi-faceted protagonist and running with it, summoning up oceans of longing and loneliness. But unfortunately, the film isn’t even close to being a worthy vehicle for her—after two acts of middling, seen-it-before Sundance fare, it collapses completely into a cheap, judgmental mess by its conclusion, leaving a sour taste in the mouth. But hopefully it’ll encourage more people to give Hahn central roles from here on out.

Finally for today, Sunday’s biggest screening was for Terry Gilliam‘s “The Zero Theorem” [C+] which we already caught in Venice. Having heard some poisonous buzz in advance, we were pleasantly surprised at the time: it’s far from perfect, but is a deeply personal and eventually affecting tale that’s mostly more successful than the director’s last few films. That said, it didn’t stick in the memory in the way that we thought it might. 

Tomorrow: Jason Reitman‘s “Labor Day,” Clio Barnard‘s “The Selfish Giant” and Cannes hit “Borgman.”

Follow all of our BFI London Film Festival coverage right here.

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