I Know You Are, But Who Am I? by Tyler Smith
Richard Ayoade’s The Double is a surprisingly effective blend of suffocating atmosphere, creepy surrealism, and pitch black humor. Adapted from a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the film examines its main character’s desperate desire to be someone else, and the absurd terror when he sees exactly what that would look like. The film is, at times, emotionally draining and more than a little obtuse, but it is ultimately a satisfying film, though maybe not in the most traditional sense.
The story involves a young man, played by Jesse Eisenberg, employed at a depressing company. I don’t really remember what the company does exactly, and I get the impression that we’re not supposed to know. In the end, does it really matter? It could do anything; be anything. The anonymity of the company adds to the completely generic and anti-individualistic feeling of the office. Our lead, Simon, is just another drone, so completely forgettable by this monolithic company that he has to remind the security guard that he not only works here, but has been coming in every day for several years.
Simon longs to be assertive, to be memorable. There are things he wants, but he has a hard time asking for them, and the world around him responds with contempt, barely putting up with this passive little worm. The waitress at the diner he frequents spends most of her time listing off all the things that he can’t order, even though he sees other people in the diner eating that exact thing.
There is a girl he likes, played by Mia Wasikowska, who is beautiful but oblivious to Simon’s intentions. When he finally gets up the courage to ask her out on what may or may not be a date, she agrees to go, but loses interest halfway through and leaves.
This is the world we’re dealing with. Everybody is against Simon, but not in an aggressive way. They’re maliciously ambivalent about him, making it clear in their words and actions that he’s just not worth their time. And all of this in the dark hallways of his office, or his stark apartment. It is forever night, with shadows creeping across the screen, waiting to engulf those unfortunate enough to inhabit it. It is sometimes sad, often angering. But it is also quite funny. It’s like some kind of farce, always upping the ante on just how depressing this world is and how ridiculously insignificant Simon can be.
Enter James, Simon’s exact double, also played by Eisenberg. He arrives at the company, and sweeps the employees off their feet with his charm and charisma. Nobody notices that he looks exactly like Simon, likely because nobody has really taken the time to notice Simon in the first place.
Simon befriends James and is quickly brought into a shady scheme. Between Simon’s hard work and professionalism (unnoticed by his superiors) and James’ social skills, the two will go back and forth, posing as one another, making their lives better. This works for a while, until it becomes clear that James isn’t really that interested in helping Simon, but more than willing to take advantage of him.
Soon, James starts to take over Simon’s entire life and Simon finally gets what he thought he wanted, to be aggressive and charming and respected. Admittedly, it’s not actually happening to him, but that makes it all the easier to observe what it would look like if he were truly a different person. It would appear that he doesn’t like it, and he proceeds to try to take his life back. Needless to say, it proves harder than he expects.
The story of The Double is something that we’ve seen before in film, in movies like Fight Club and Adaptation., but it nonetheless feels fresh, likely due to Ayoade’s commitment to creating a world- through the claustrophobic art direction and expressionistic lighting and color- that pulls us in deeper and deeper until we feel just as trapped as the protagonist. However, Ayoade also never lets the absurd surrealism of the piece get in the way of the emotions and reactions of Simon as he sees his life slipping away from him. In what could have been a purely intellectual exercise, everybody involved- including a very effective Jesse Eisenberg in two distinctly terrific performances- still desires to tell a very human story; one that we can hopefully all relate to.
And we do relate to it. Sure, the outer atmosphere of the film may not be too familiar to us, but the general feel of it probably is. I certainly know I’ve had times when I wished I could be a different person. A desire like that is particularly upsetting, as what I’m essentially doing is surveying the internal world in which I live and deciding that there’s nothing there worth staying for. Simon’s dismal world reflects his decaying inner life in a way that makes us desperately wish that he could get out, somehow.
But he can’t get out, at least not while he still desires to get away from himself. As long as he focuses on his flaws and shortcomings, the deeper into this world he plunges. Only when he starts to see the value of himself- even if nobody else does- will his world begin to change. And the same goes for us.
It is, in principle, a simple message. Putting it into practice, however, can be a very difficult process that, in some cases, could take the rest of our lives. But, in the end, it’s worth it. One wouldn’t expect to find such an essentially inspiring call to action in the midst of so dark and depressing a world, but that’s often where we need it the most. The Double is a film that understands what it is to be roaming through a hostile world, only to be confronted by an unexpected hope, and the promise that there is indeed something more.