The Double is horror for the meek, comedy for the rest of the world. A loose adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel of the same name, Ayoade’s second feature as a director spans genres and spins laughs out of our deepest-held terrors that our own insecurities prevent us from ever measuring up to our own image of our potential selves. Our more confident peers may have no regrets, but the rest of us are tortured by the possibilities we missed by not approaching that cutie at the bar, or letting someone else take credit for our own hard work. It’s scarier than a thousand girl ghosts dripping blood out of their eye sockets.
While his debut work Submarine was certainly a charming, intelligent, and sensitively put-together comedy of teenage awkwardness, it was hard not to label it as another French New Wave homage cranked out by film students on a straight diet of Wes Anderson. Which ultimately can feel a little dismissive a judgement, but also kind of inescapable. But since it was his first movie, we were thankfully allowed to give him some slack and simply state “I look forward to his future work”. And just as we’d hoped, it’s with his second feature, The Double, that Ayoade has made a real stride towards finding his personal voice.
I mean, sure, it’s not without influences, but what movie is? Its vision of a near-future populated by pawns following logically impossible orders in endless grey work stations certainly does recall Terry Gilliam’s Brazil stripped of its fanciful moments of shoe-hats and flying knights. There’s definitely a nod to David Lynch in its hallucinogenic editing and party scene involving a haunting crooner churning out retro ballads. And superficially, it’s hard to ignore the Hitchcockian element of our protagonist’s (Jesse Eisenberg) penchant for watching people through telescopes, or his unrequited love’s (Mia Wasikowska) blonde hair, trench coat, and headscarf get-up.
However, Ayoade has crafted these influences into a strikingly new, personal vision: a film which manages to push self-deprecating British humour, of luckless awkward men beaten down by an incomprehensible world, to its stylistic limits. The Double bravely adopts the cold hues and voyeuristic detachment of European art house, something we don’t necessarily associate with the gritty street realism or sober period dramas of British film. Ayoade’s vision of a dystopian future is brutally claustrophobic: peeling wallpaper consumed by an invasion of cold, rusted metal. The only time our characters ever go outside is in the midst of night, and even then you’re not sure they’re really outside and not just in some giant bunker with a very tall ceiling. Sound design steps in to play a vital role in a film which relishes so much in long spans of time without dialogue: to construct a world which seems to be constantly closing in on its characters. It can feel genuinely suffocating at times.
And yet through all of this it remains forthrightly a comedy, thanks to a brilliant script penned by Ayoade himself and Avi Korine (bro of Harmony) which takes full advantage of our enduring loyalty to the concept of Schadenfreude. This film’s real genius lies in the fact that Ayoade never compromises on either front. The comedy is never allowed room to breathe in his chaotic vision, the tension doesn’t take a tea break so you can squeeze in a moment or two of levity. It’s a comedy filmed entirely as a psychological thriller, and somehow it works perfectly. You’re never quite sure whether you should be laughing or whether you should be crying.
In this light, the casting of Jesse Eisenberg was pretty much a pitch perfect decision. The role of Simon James, hapless office minion, is one that’s written very much in the mold of your average typical British comedic lead. Nervous, stuttering, and polite to the ends of the Earth. Going back to Ayoade’s influences, there’s clear echoes of Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry in Brazil here. However, getting an American actor to play the role leads us even further away from our concrete ideas of what British comedy should be, especially with an actor who himself as resolutely refused to be pinned down as the comedic goof or brooding thespian.
The Double absolutely sees Richard Ayoade coming into his maturity, which is impressive so early on in his directorial career after years of nerding it up on our TV screens. If the British Film Industry has any sense left in it, it should really consider riding this guy’s coattails in the future. And riding them hard.
Director: Richard Ayoade
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Chris O’Dowd, Mia Wasikowska
Runtime: 93 min