The Double is a thoroughly unpleasant cinematic experience. Whether or not that makes it a bad flm is a more complicated subject. Amongst the most affective films I’ve seen are films mired in misery – Requiem for a Dream or Irréversible – so I’m not prepared to dismiss a movie simply because it can’t be conveniently classified as “fun” or “entertaining.”
Unfortunately, while I have to give some credit to director Richard Ayoade (along with cinematographer Erik Wilson and production designer David Crank) for a constructing a clammily claustrophobic world, I don’t think that The Double ever justifies its unpleasant atmosphere. The film is quite successful at putting you in the headspace of an individual like Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), someone socially anxious, profoundly unhappy and utterly ignored by his family and colleagues … but a film that makes you feel this rotten needs to have something substantial to say, and I’m not convinced that’s the case here. If anything, the film acts as apologia for the Nice Guy archetype, manifested here as the insipid Simon James.
The Double takes its name both from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella (adapted by Avi Korine) and Simon’s doppelgänger, James Simon (played, naturally, by Eisenberg as well). When the self-loathing, impossibly awkward Simon encounters his debonair, dashing duplicate, it seems to accelerate his descent into disastrous despair. He’s unappreciated by his boss (Wallace Shawn), ignored by his colleague and object of affection, Hannah (an under-used Mia Wasikowska) and matters only worsen when James enters the picture, stealing credit for his innovations at work and sweeping Hannah off her feet.
All this miserabilia takes place in the dank, grimy confines of industrial office buildings and harsh cement apartment blocks, filmed with a urinary tint that recalls Andes Serrano’s Piss Christ. The film’s look is a hodge-podge – most strongly influenced by Brazil, it’s also indebted to noir, cheap ‘70s television shows and, to my eyes, a musty RSL – but there are genuinely powerful images here, such as the expressionistic shot of Hannah and Simon gazing up at the jaggedly-lit bloodstain left on the edge of their apartment by a recent suicide.
Impressive imagery is not sufficient, unfortunately, to justify spending an hour-and-a-half sharing Simon’s unfortunate ordeal. We’re expected to sympathise with this man (in the short Making Of documentary that accompanies the Australian Blu-Ray release, Korine notes that both himself and Ayoade “have a little Simon in us”), but that sympathy is based on little more than the fact that he’s (a) a white, male protagonist and (b) consistently victimised. Admittedly, that victimisation is executed with a Monty Python-inspired comic energy that is intermittently funny, but on reflection there’s really very little reason to side with Simon. His exaggerated timidity is one thing, but we seem to be expected to root for him to end up with Hannah – a woman he watches, nightly, through a telescope before rummaging through her garbage.
Perhaps I’m misreading the film; there’s perhaps enough to suggest that Ayoade is intending the film as an excoriation of this kind of Nice Guy – a meek, watery individual who believes he is entitled happiness simply by being unobjectionable; “nice.” For example, Hannah (who’s defined entirely by the men in her life) is given a rant about a former stalker (that aforementioned suicide): “What exactly do you think is going to happen here? Do you think you know who I am? You know, if you stare long enough, I’ll just turn around one day and I’ll kiss you?” And Ayoade’s last film, Submarine, was in many ways a clever interrogation of the selfishness that defines the oft-romanticised introverted young male.
Much like Submarine, however, The Double concludes with a validation of its protagonist’s worst impulses. Maybe it’s unfair to read the film’s climax as an unreserved “victory” for Simon, but it’s hard not read the final minutes as a triumph – a violent one – for this unexceptional stalker. He apparently breaks out of the negativity of the world around him through self-harm and betrayal, and it’s framed as though it’s a kind of happy ending. It’s an unpleasant ending for an unpleasant film.