Like a lucid nightmare on the subway at odd hours, The Double leaves one feeling intellectually stimulated, creatively charged, and close to existential panic. The second feature directed by Richard Ayoade is a dark and surreal comedy-thriller that takes a dizzying jaunt through cinematic and literary allusion, parody and paranoia. Indebted to Kafka, Hitchcock, Welles, Gilliam, Lynch, Polanski, and a long list of others, the film is set in a futuristic bureaucratic bedlam of labyrinthine offices, apartments, whose windows are thinly veiled by venetian blinds, and deserted greasy spoons. Weaving a tale that is somehow funny and frightening at the same time, Ayoade adopts an elaborate audiovisual idiom to convey psychological derangement: frequent cuts between brisk tracking shots and detached high angles; diegetic groans of metallic apparatuses and the Bernard Herrmann-esque score by composer Andrew Hewitt; and by the end, something like the filmic equivalent of free indirect discourse in writing.
The Double is a (semi-)modern adaptation of a novella by Dostoevsky, who had an ingenious way of subjectively rendering his characters’ frenzied experiences. Both the screenplay (written by Ayoade and Avi Korin) and its source center on the same type of unlikely hero: a nervous, socially inept and deeply lonesome man who spends most of his life between his office job and his apartment. In the film, we watch Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg, whose deep-set cheeks and geometric frame recall an Edward Hopper figure) spying on Hannah (Mia Wasikowska, ostensibly lamblike, though her fierce side rears its head) from his apartment window through a phallic telescope à la Rear Window. His voyeurism crosses the line from innocent curiosity to a deep yearning for human connection: he even comes up with a monologue about feeling like Pinocchio (“a wooden boy, not a real boy”) though he’s too excruciatingly awkward to share it with Hannah at work. She runs the company photocopier, so we often see her swathed in a flattering shade of phosphorescent blue light, but unfortunately for Simon, she has him tagged as “that creepy guy” among work colleagues (who all happen to be geriatric).
In the portrayal of Simon’s obsessive, unrequited love for Hannah, age-old themes of alienation strike a contemporary chord. A generation of spectators versed in computer-aided voyeurism might draw an unsettling connection between Simon’s window-peeping and Internet stalking, and also might recognize the treacherous terrain of misconduct in the office. Yet the film’s more probing questions come down to the nature of the selfhood: who we really are, versus who we want to be. (The parallel extends to how we curate, say, an online profile.) The film speeds up in tempo and shot-length when we are introduced to a new employee in the office, an exact doppelgänger of James who is more confident, less ethical, and gifted with the manipulative finesse of a noir villain. Eisenberg plays both roles—guileless Simon James, and slick James Simon—with subtle precision, down to a difference of about 10 degrees of angular rotation in the swing of the characters’ arms, as they bob alongside one another in a rainy industrial district that seems to be carved out of Polanski’s Chinatown. At first the two make a splendid duo: the cooler one gives the nerdy one advice about how to seduce Hannah, and then persuades him do his office work. But once the new guy secures the favor of their boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn, whose lilting inflection comes across as ominous in this environment), the games are over, and Simon risks losing both the girl and his mind.
Sinister in tone and at times esoteric (some shots seem to be precise replicas of paintings by René Magritte), The Double at first seems to belong to a realm far removed from Ayoade’s first feature, Submarine—a 2010 comedy about a Wales-based high-schooler whose world is shattered by his first break-up and the possibility of his parents’ divorce, recounted in a farcically melodramatic voiceover. Yet Ayoade’s two films in fact have a great deal of thematic crossover, both converging on boys with all-consuming crushes of almost psychotic proportions, who experience near-suicidal depression as the result of being misunderstood. It sounds like a recipe for morbid teenage angst (not unlike a number of masterpieces of cinema and literature), but underlying Ayoade’s new film is the same glib sense of humor we saw in Submarine. In The Double, the appearances by Sally Hawkins, Cathy Moriarty, and Chris O’Dowd, the Kubrickian fight sequences involving strange objects, the Fellini-esque animal cries from out of nowhere, all keep us grinning—it’s just so absurd! But not even cinephiles can live on allusions alone, and I think Ayoade goes a bit overboard, losing hold of the human side of his characters in order to cram all the referential flare he can into 93 minutes. That said, even for casual viewers, who may go into The Double feeling like children lost in a modern art museum, the experience will be a hard one to forget.