The impression that a film makes is, of course, in large part to do with the state of mind, previous experiences, and interpretations of the viewer. I suspect, however, that this is more the case with films that attempt to deal explicitly with issues of identity and the meaning of existence. This certainly appears to be part of the purpose of Richard Ayoade’s The Double but, unfortunately, the heavy-handed approach makes it a somewhat unsatisfying experience. As with Ayoade’s debut, Submarine, this film centres on a quiet young man with complicated family relationships and an infatuation with a bright woman who adds some excitement to his life.
Here we have the story of a competent and decent but chronically under-confident fellow by the name of Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg). He meanders through a dystopian life of journeys on almost-empty metro trains, numerous hours of number crunching in his tiny office booth, and occasional visits to the care home where his unloving mother resides. His world is heavily redolent of those conjured by Terry Gilliam in Brazil and David Lynch in Eraserhead. The mist-filled streets, flickering light bulbs, and corridors in hues of brown, grey, and green have the desired effect; we know this isn’t a happy place to live. The only ray of light in this otherwise dingy existence is Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who Simon fabricates reasons to visit in the photocopying room where she works and, slightly creepily, spies on with a telescope from the box-room that he calls home. Alas, our Simon is such a non-entity that, like everyone else, Hannah can’t even remember his name. So far so glum.
Fortunately the arrival on the scene of Simon’s doppelganger, in the form of James Simon (also Eisenberg), livens proceedings. Here’s a man who knows what he wants and has the chutzpah to bloody well get it. Not only will he lie, cheat, and trample on anyone (including his hapless double) to achieve his goals but he seems to relish making this his modus operandi. Thus emerges the central conflict of the film, between the reliable but unimpressive Simon and the brash, bullshitting, but ultimately unsubstantial James. Of course, it’s difficult to miss THE POINT here; this isn’t just a story about two people in opposition but about two sides of the same person struggling to define them. Simon the nobody can’t continue his empty existence without ever having the confidence to pursue his desires; he must confront and ultimately tame the aggressive go-getting side of himself that is embodied in James. So intense is this struggle that, at its darkest moments, it points towards madness.
The problem is that the intensity of the struggle and its containment within a 93 minutes running time make it difficult for THE POINT not to hit the audience in the face. Moderating desire, and balancing pursuit of dreams with consideration of others is difficult. One can go too far in either direction and doing so will ultimately harm yourself, people around you, or both. It’s certainly a topic worth of consideration, but does it have to be so in-your-face? Perhaps the source material, in the form of Fyodor Dostoyevski’s novella (which, hands up, I’ll admit I haven’t read), is to blame but I suspect that this sort of issue is more easy to handle with nuance in a book. A reader has the time and space to piece together the message of a book in a way that suits them whereas a viewer, on this evidence, has it laid out in front of them on a big silver platter. With neon lights around it. And a trumpet fanfare on loop.
Perhaps this is a bit unfair; the fundamentals of the film are all in order. The depressing dystopia is well-rendered, Eisenberg and Wazikowska both put in balanced and moving performances, the rest of the cast are great, and there’s a host of highly entertaining cameos (from Tim Key, Sally Hawkins, Chris Morris, and Chris O’Dowd) that lighten the mood. The problem is that all of this is overshadowed by THE POINT. And this is where it comes back to the individual experience of the viewer. The person who I saw the film with said that they felt it was more like a series of vignettes, some of which worked very well and others less so. To an extent I agree; there were certainly some great scenes, ranging from hilarious to poignant. However I tend to appreciate films that tell stories and let me take some thoughts away from them. The Double, by contrast, felt like it was making its point so strongly that the story was only there to serve its purpose.