If you find yourself wanting to see a very particular kind of movie this weekend—an enigmatic literary adaptation exploring the theme of the double, in which a troubled young man crosses paths with an exact lookalike who seems to be a less inhibited, more successful version of himself—you have, appropriately enough, two recent releases to choose from: Richard Ayoade’s The Double or Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. (The Double opens Friday; Enemy left theaters a few weeks ago but is available streaming on Amazon.) But The Double and Enemy—adapted, respectively, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella and a 2002 novel by Nobel Prize–winning Portuguese author José Saramago—are far from being each other’s doppelgangers. Though Ayoade and Villeneuve would no doubt have a hell of a lot to discuss over drinks, they’re not at all working in the same vein.
Ayoade is a British comedian best known for his acting roles in the cult TV series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (which he also co-created with the show’s star Matthew Holness) and The IT Crowd. His first feature as a director, Submarine, was a nostalgic coming-of-age romance set in 1980s Wales, lit and art-directed with painstaking attention to detail—a wisp of a film but the kind that leaves you keen to see what the director will turn to next. As it happens he’s decided to go with, of all things, a surreal black comedy set in a vaguely Kafkaesque bureaucratic dystopia. (The screenplay, based loosely on Dostoyevsky’s story, is by Ayoade and Avi Korine.) Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a low-level clerk whose lonely but stable life is upended when an employee joins his firm who looks, sounds, and even dresses exactly like him—a resemblance no one but Simon seems to notice. The suavely self-assured James Simon (Eisenberg again) succeeds everywhere the stammering Simon James fails. Without seeming to try, he dazzles their irascible boss (Wallace Shawn, in top form), seduces the boss’ rebellious daughter (Yasmin Paige), and even gets his hooks into Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the dreamy-eyed co-worker Simon has long been in love with from afar.
The Double’s mood of gently uncanny perversity is conveyed as much by the setting as by the story. Ayoade creates a uniquely stylized dystopia, lit in dusty tones of olive and ochre and scored, mysteriously but somehow perfectly, to vintage Japanese pop. It’s a historically scrambled world of labyrinthine office corridors, Soviet-style apartment blocks, and impossible-to-date technology. Much of Simon’s job consists of hand-delivering photocopies around the office, but the co-workers he visits are as likely as not to be playing video games. Occasionally a character will turn on a television and watch, and what happens on that screen within a screen is fascinating. As he demonstrated in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace—a brilliant medical-melodrama pastiche whose best jokes were all about the disruption of conventional film grammar—Ayoade is a master at creating fake artifacts from a culture that resembles, but isn’t quite, our own. One bit of propaganda on Simon’s TV suggests the whole story may be taking place in an authoritarian dictatorship run by a figure called “the Colonel,” who also appears to be James’ and Simon’s boss. The Colonel’s ad campaign, with its brittle, hollow cheer and fluent command of vapid business-speak, is among The Double’s most innovative moments. These scenes make you wish the film as a whole had foregrounded the political-parable aspect and de-emphasized the James/Simon split-personality psychodrama.
Conversely, Villeneuve’s Enemy at times seems to be a political parable masquerading as a psychodrama. Or something masquerading as something—one thing you have to give Enemy, it keeps you on your toes up to the last (terrifying, mystifying) shot. “Chaos is order yet undeciphered,” reads an opening quote from the Saramago novel on which the film is based: a promise, seemingly, that it will all make sense in the end if we can just find the key. Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a history professor, explicates a similar idea in an early classroom scene when, standing in front of a chalkboard with the word “truth” crossed out behind him, he lectures on Hegel’s notion that every event in history happens twice.
There’s a David Lynch–like logic to the way Adam eventually discovers his double: In an awkward faculty-lounge conversation, a colleague insists he should watch a recent movie called Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way. When Adam rents the DVD, he catches a glimpse of a man playing a bellhop who looks eerily like him. Investigating online, he learns that the bellhop, credited as Daniel St. Clair, is actually named Anthony Clair and happens to live in the same town as Adam (a deliberately unspecific, alien-looking Toronto). After a series of distrustful phone calls the two men meet and, after encountering the bizarre but incontrovertible fact of their physical indistinguishability, immediately slip into a dangerous relationship of overidentification and sexual rivalry. Paranoically convinced that Adam has slept with his wife, the hot-tempered Anthony vows to take Adam’s girlfriend (Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent) on a romantic getaway and have his way with her—which leaves Adam free to pose as Anthony and drop in on his double’s gorgeous six-months-pregnant wife (recent Cronenberg muse Sarah Gadon).
I’ll leave you to discover the rest of Enemy’s plot, except to say that all this key-party-style partner-swapping takes place in the context of a larger, murky story involving an illegal sex ring, totalitarian-style surveillance, and spiders (if you’ve seen the film or don’t mind spoilers, Slate’s Forrest Wickman has surmised one way it might all fit together).
Any story constructed around the theme of the double—one of the most ancient in literature, which plays on the human fascination with identity and belonging, repetition and uniqueness—lives and dies by its ending. Will the apparent duality of the hero be revealed as an entirely internal split, the mere hallucination of a disordered mind? What new truths about the universe will have emerged from this apparent break with the logic of everyday life, in which, Hegel notwithstanding, things only happen once and people are who they appear to be? The Double grapples vigorously (sometimes frenetically) with these questions, but its last act flags both in energy and thematic coherence. However impressive Eisenberg’s virtuosity—he’s a master at shifting personas using nothing but his posture and expression—a whole movie spent cooped up in the skull of one lonely man (or is it two?) can get airless fast. In Enemy, that claustrophobia problem is solved by a twist ending that seems to take us outside the heads of both Gyllenhaal’s characters—way outside—and abruptly strands us in a new reality that’s as unexpected as it is unsettling (though riddle-like clues had been popping up throughout). I didn’t enjoy Enemy nearly as much as The Double while watching it—Villeneuve is heavier-handed, and a less nimble filmmaker than Ayoade—but I can’t get Enemy’s peculiar, fevered mood, or the memory of that wackadoo last image, out of my head.
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