Doppelgangers, Dostoyevsky and the importance of timelessness.
The Double—a skillful adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novella—is director Richard Ayoade’s second film (his first was 2010’s Submarine). Ayoade has slightly modernized the story, illustrating the familiar claustrophobia and drudgery of an office job. Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is a timid clerk working in a government organization, disregarded by his boss (Wallace Shawn) and unloved by Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the beautiful copy room girl he lusts after for from afar. Simon is berated or snubbed by everyone he knows; he’s brought the wrong order at restaurants, and when his office access card suddenly stops working, though he protests, “I’ve worked here 7 years!”, no one seems to believe him. Anonymous both in his work and in the industrial, impersonal world he inhabits, Simon mournfully admits, “I don’t know how to be myself.” And he isn’t the only one who hasn’t figured it out, as the police report that they can barely cover all the suicides in Simon’s neighborhood—let alone the entire city.
Things get even worse when Simon is introduced to James, a new co-worker. James is not only Simon’s exact physical double (Eisenberg plays both roles in a tour de force performance), he is also Simon’s behavioral opposite; confident and charismatic where Simon is unsure and insecure. However, they are not so much different characters as they are two manifestations of the same psyche. Simon’s predicament calls attention to a bittersweet belief we probably all possess: that a much better version of ourselves is possible, if only we could figure out how to transform. I spoke with Ayoade about the complex construction of a hyper-real cinematic setting, the trouble with urban lifestyles, and finding the comedy in misery.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold The visual tone of this film is unsettling and otherworldly; a little bit noir, very stifling, and industrial. Can you speak about what inspired the visual choices you made?
Richard Ayoade Primarily, the novel is set in nineteenth century Russia, so we wanted to try and transpose it to a non-nineteenth century time—make it more contemporary. It didn’t feel as though it had to be exactly now. There was something in the source material essentially pre-digital; digitization has completely changed, in many ways, how people work in terms of hierarchies, and information. Even travel is so different now. Considering the time this book was written, it felt necessary to create an ultimate world where the strata and lack of mobility that existed before would prevent this character from being able to escape the world he was in. Since The Apartment, the idea of anyone being truly wedded to their profession in a film is just nonsense. You’ll say, Well—he can leave the boring desk job to pursue his dream of being a kayak instructor!, or whatever it is. But this isn’t a world where someone can leave their job and move or get on a plane to the south of France. I wanted to create a world a bit more like that in a Beckett play: a space that isn’t now, nor the future, nor the past. Like in the 1950s, when they predicted what life would be like now ... this is what they would have imagined.
AJG But it’s not often you see a movie whose time and place is so utterly mysterious and impossible to locate. As you’ve just described, The Double takes place in a world both futuristic and reminiscent of a non-specific past, not obviously modern or antiquated. Why the ambiguity?
RA There’s something inherently fairy tale-like about a doppelganger or a double; it’s an impossible thing. If you have a complete interaction with the present day, you’ll just say, “Someone doing this wouldn’t live in a house like that,” or, “Why can’t they go and do this job?” All of the impediments that seem to face Simon are more like the ones you might face in a dream. In a dream, you don’t have a photographic reality. Because film can precisely capture what’s there, you can be left with a kind of lazy or de facto verisimilitude. That’s the baseline of a film: it looks exactly like the real world. In some ways, there is something more distilled about old Hollywood or silent films, where everything on screen is there because it’s necessary to telling the story, not simply because they couldn’t move that building. So we wanted everything that existed in our film to be necessary. Our production designer pointed out how in Edward Hopper paintings, you never see the wires between telegraph poles—because you don’t need to see them for what needs to be communicated to come across. So we wanted to strip it down, as in a dream when you say, “I was in a bar,” and you just know it’s a bar because there’s enough stuff to signify it’s a bar, but it’s not full of details. In a way, films have created their own completely weird and bogus form of pseudo-reality that’s really unreal. For example, everyone’s far too handsome. There’s something slightly disconcerting about everyone being that handsome. It’s just strange.
AJG Jesse Eisenberg felt perfectly cast and very at home in a dismally comic Russian fairytale. What qualities did Jesse have that led to him getting the role?
RA I think Jesse is a unique actor and one of the best actors of his age. He’s able to play such different characters without undergoing massive physical transformations, which has almost become the go-to thing for displaying range. That sort of thing is interesting to an extent, but you almost feel the actor’s dietician ought also to be up there receiving an award for them. It’s great that someone’s got massive sideburns now, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to a transformation of the inner life of their character. Jesse is able to do these very different characters while still somehow remaining himself. And especially in something like The Double, where the whole idea was for two characters to look precisely the same, I wanted someone who has mastered a differentiation between characters that’s not external. The amazing thing with Jesse is that, even in the edit, when I’d have a still frame of the two doubles, you knew exactly which one was which. He’s funny, but he’s also emotional and serious. He can kind of do it all.
AJG The film is quite funny and intensely bleak at the same time. People are lonely, unhappy, and there seem to be a lot of suicides in the city at large. No one pays any attention to Simon, so he’s completely isolated—all very depressing. But then you have hilarious bits, for example when an elevator in Simon’s building keeps screwing with him and not working properly—but you get the sense it’s only for him that the elevator won’t work. In Submarine too, you seem to suggest that humor and melancholy go well together. Why do you think that is?
RA One of the saddest faces is Buster Keaton’s, and he’s the funniest person there ever was. But there’s a melancholy look in his eyes; he’s a little man against the world. Even someone who’s garrulous—like Groucho Marx—has a loner component to them. They’re outside of things. So there’s an inherent thing in funny moments, where essentially someone is being excluded, which is a lonely or sad thing. Someone getting very annoyed that they can’t find a parking space at the funeral of their father—it’s like this awful situation, but kind of funny simultaneously. Trying to reason with an inanimate object is ridiculous, but then it’s also understandable.
I think you need to care about things in order to laugh. You know that book called 1,001 Great Jokes? They’re never great because they don’t have a personality behind them. But if you read a Woody Allen joke, and disregard the obvious superiority with which Woody Allen has written it, the joke comes with him, his persona and humanity. That’s what makes it a great joke. A Christmas cracker joke can never be a great joke, because it’s disembodied. It doesn’t connect to anyone. For something to be funny it needs to be human, I guess.
AJG Yeah, we laugh at things if we’re emotionally invested, or if we identify with the person making us laugh. I know a few people who don’t find even Woody Allen’s older films funny, because they find him unlikable—thus his jokes don’t make an impression. It seems like comedians are also often the types of people most prone to depression, neuroses, cynicism, and general sensitivity to the world around them. That’s why they’re able to notice all these absurd details about life and try to make them funny as a way of coping.
RA I remember Michael Haneke saying that there’s an occupational disease with writers: they have a lack of connection to the real world in some ways. Their writing might be an attempt to make some form of restitution for their inability to connect properly. But I think everyone finds it difficult. In some ways, you are lucky if you’re able to write, because you have a way of expressing it. It’s a fortunate and great thing to be able to do—as well as something that torments you, because you never feel you can do it well enough. But I certainly feel lucky I’m able to write.
AJG Too bad Simon didn’t have a creative outlet.
RA Right. And Hannah does have that outlet, but she is never happy with what she does. Partially, I think, because she has no audience.
AJG In British cinema, the focus tends to be on social issues, rather than on broader and more existential themes that you are partial to. Why do you think that is?
RA It’s true there’s a big social realism lineage in English films. Hollywood has been seen as the traditional model of escapism and fantasy, and maybe in reaction, English films have been more gritty or real. I think that could be partially because fantasy films require more resources and money, while realism is often much cheaper. There’s also possibly a suspicion of fantasy as something that’s decadent. In general, I think it’s become more and more rare in films to have things set in a total fantasy world. You wish for films like Zelig, which is such a brilliant act of imagination. But who’s doing that? Maybe Wes Anderson is doing that. But there aren’t many others.
AJG It’s funny in a way, because all the best fantasy literature is of British origin: Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, P. L. Travers, Roald Dahl—it’s surprising British films and filmmakers don’t follow suit.
RA I suppose there’s not a lot of those kinds of films in Hollywood either, not at this level. People feel uncomfortable if something isn’t set in a totally real world. Realism has become the kind of benchmark. Even the thrillers, what used to be a Hitchcock fantasy—the modern equivalent is trying not to show artifice, but rather trying to be realistic. The go-to qualities have become urgency and intensity.
AJG The character of Simon is of no interest to anyone, to the point where he begins to worry he has no real identity or doesn’t even exist at all. He’s struggling with his own obscurity, lamenting the fact that he feels like a wooden Pinocchio instead of a real boy. Aside from your film, in the world at large, there are so many people that we are all rather anonymous, or insignificant in the grand scheme of things. If I’m not mistaken, you live in London, and in a huge city one can feel particularly unknown. Do you find that sensation depressing or freeing .... or both?
RA These books by Dostoyevsky—or by Kafka later on—coincided with the advent of industrialism and people living anonymously. You’re meant to studiously avoid your neighbor. So there is something very weird about it. Who even knows what it does to you, to live in a city with eight million people ignoring you, and you ignoring them?
I remember when I first moved to London, seeing someone lying on the ground, unconscious, holding a pint of beer. I went around the block and came back to see if he was still there—and he was, but someone had taken his beer. That’s kind of what it is to live in a city. You’re just another body. I think that’s why those books and these writers really tap in to something—living in cities is a strange and uncomfortable way to exist. Yet still, we do it.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic based in New York City.