Four years ago, Whipps Cross’ Richard Ayoade directed his debut feature, Submarine. The film dealt in nostalgia; a Swansea full of typewriters and cassette tapes and Super-8 home movies. It was a satire of teenagehood, of how important it all once seemed. But it also instilled the feeling that life is endless and changeable, infinite in possibility.
A blooming Hollywood career later, Ayoade returns with an inversion. The Double isn’t about becoming the person you’re meant to be. It’s about coming face to face with the person you desperately wish you were.
Loosely adapted from the Dostoyevsky 1846 novella of the same name, The Double also recalls the alienated works of Franz Kafka. It’s a blackened satire of man lost to a world both indifferent and conspiring. But Ayoade has heightened it to the pitch of gothic noir, driven on by hysterical strings and a darting, rushing camera and veiled in light and shadow and smoke. There’s a Kubrickian sense that we're looking at both the future and the past, that this world is both anywhere and nowhere, like a nightmare so recurring it becomes familiar, mundane.
In Kafka’s 'Metamorphosis', Gregor Samsa one day wakes to find he has turned into an insect. No-one seems to notice, except to impart a mild sense of irritation. Here, Jesse Eisenberg plays shy and passive and overly dutiful Simon James, who lives alone in a Soviet-brutalist block and works as a data-entry sentinel in a windowless office surrounded by shuffling, dust-covered old men. He’s silently in love with the fairyish Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who works – without ever noticing him – in the same office and lives in the block opposite. His mother (Phyllis Somerville) frantically calls him from an old people’s home, asking him where he is, telling him he’s a disappointment. The police are round-the-clock dedicated to suicide-watch; they classify him as a maybe.
At work one day, Simon James meets James Simon – his double, but everything he is not. James Simon is brash and effortlessly charming and only interested in his own desires. He immediately seduces Hannah, as well as every other pretty girl he comes across. He befriends the original, but only to exploit his diligent work ethic, and to use his flat as a place to take girls without getting caught. And yet no-one seems to notice.
Ayoade is openly indebted to the bureau-state labyrinths of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, to the workers’ subterranean toil in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, to the voyeuristic unease of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. It’s as if someone has taken The Lives of Others – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck account of East Berlin monitored by agents of the Stasi, and ground it through the mind of F.W. Murnau. It’s a self-conscious film steeped in nods and references and tropes, yet with a restless rhythm and momentum, an ability to gather you into its mindset, a pressing sense of prescience.
A lot of this has to do with the natural abilities of Jesse Eisenberg. It’s as if Ayoade has taken his nervous energy, his ability to stand apart and be at one with a character, and built a narrative around it. Eisenberg spends a lot of time staring, or stammering, or simply saying nothing, his mouth pulled into a terse point. But he can convey emotion and mental adjustment with the tiniest shifts of expression. The way he contrasts his doppelgänger against his timid self, with James Simon’s languid body, his quick smile, his flinty eyes, is almost cruel in its self-depreciation.
As The Double powers to an increasingly melodramatic finale, it struggles to decouple itself from the trappings of satire, to find a heart in all the arch tomfoolery. Is this a character study that will move and affect and deeply impact? Probably not. But as an example of how to build the tropes of genre cinema into something fresh and discursive and entertaining and strangely, unexpectedly sexy, it’s a pretty audacious demonstration.
'The Double' is released in UK cinemas on 4 April.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @TomSeymour