Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Richard Ayoade | The Double

surviving through suicide

By Douglas Messerli

 Richard Ayoade and Avi Korine (screenplay, based on Dostoevsky’s novella, The Double), Richard Ayoade (director) The Double / 2013, USA 2014

 So intertwined are the successes and failures of Richard Ayoade’s film, The Double, which I saw the other day at Landmark’s Nu-Art Theatre, that I increasingly become uncertain whether I can succulently unweave the various elements of the film in order to properly evaluate it. I guess we should say, right out—in a time when most films are so banal and adolescent that they are not even worth talking about—that a film dedicated, even at the skeletal level of Ayoade’s movie, to a Dostoevsky story ought to be celebrated. And the opportunity it gives its star(s), Jesse Eisenberg (as both Simon James and James Simon), to act out two oppositional figures, should be seen as a significant theatrical gift, particularly within the acting community. That Eisenberg’s performance, particularly early on as the nerdy, unimaginative Simon James is somewhat muddled, is perhaps to be expected; and he surely redeems himself as he slips into Simon’s polar opposite, as the likeable, sociable, and, apparently for nearly every woman he meets, sexually desirable James Simon.
      Perhaps it is also inevitable that, given the surrealist-like elements of such a story, that the youngish (37) British director would also allow himself the influences and palettes of figures such as Gogol (also an influence for Dostoevsky), Kafka, and Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. The later allows him a truly memorable excursion into an office world of sickly green lights, permanent cubicles, and noisy machines from a distant past that strangely are asked to function in a slightly futurist environment. All of this is overseen by a boorish hoot of a manipulator-office manager, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn).  
     Much like a figure straight out of Kafka, Simon James is represented as such a person of low-esteem that he gives up his seat in an otherwise empty train to a man who claims James in sitting in his seat! Arriving at his place of work, he is told that his identification has been cancelled, and, although has worked there for several years, he must sign-in as a stranger-guest each day, the imposing security guard refusing to be able to even identify him. Indeed, hardly any of his colleagues can recall James as a real human being, although many of them are quite ready to take advantage of his abilities to help themselves to get advances.
      From Gogol, the director has stolen an entirely bureaucratic world where, even though employees are “required” to attend a company party, Simon cannot gain entry since he has no current identification papers. Strangely, he is perhaps the only employee who might have something to truly offer the owner, The Colonel (James Fox): a paper outlining the inefficiency of the organization.   

      The only seemingly joy this loser has is the beauty of his neighbor, also an employee in his company, Hannah (Mia Washikowska), whom each night he watches through a telescope as she mysteriously paints figures which she cuts up and tosses into the trash bin. Simon rushes out to the  bin to retrieve the pieces, pasting them into what we later perceive as a album dedicated to her lost art.     
     One night he sees a young man, whom he immediately recognizes as a carbon copy of himself, who waves at him before jumping from a window to his death. Reporting the incident to the police, Simon suddenly enters a strange relationship with the “ghost” of his own being, a doppelgänger that in Dostoevsky leads to his mental breakdown and in Ayoade’s film ends with his near suicide.
     At first, the relationship develops as a kind of intense friendship, perhaps—as his double suggests—with a repressed element of homosexuality, as we watch Simon readily invite James to live with him, and we observe him lovingly stroking the intruder’s face. But that friendship quickly is transformed into anger and even hate as he watches his doppelgänger hired by his own company, which quickly praises James’ talents, and offers him a position far above that which, despite the several years of servitude, Simon has attained. Like others in the company, James takes advantage of Simon’s intelligence by forcing him to take the battery of tests the company requires, while admitting that he does not even know what the company does. Simon’s abilities allow James to easily pass the test and move even higher in the company structure, or, at least, in the Papadopoulos’ and the Colonel’s appreciation of him.

Seemingly out of pity, James attempts to help Simon woo the woman he loves, Hannah; but soon after Simon perceives that James has not only moved romantically in on Hannah, but has used some of Simon’s own words to describe his feelings. James has also taken Simon’s inefficiency report directly to the Colonel, garnering him further acclaim within the halls of this ambiguous business. Although none of his fellow employees seem to be able to recognize that the two men look alike, Simon and James find that not only do they share appearances, but they share, so it seems, the functions of their bodies, as Simon grows violent and attempts to destroy his double.    He quickly recognizes, however, that to do so would be to destroy himself. Fired from the company which has almost served as his home, the “simple Simon” of this tale figures out simply how to survive. Like James, Simon will wave to his doppelgänger as he leaps to his death. In the earlier scene in which he have watched Simon fall, the police have noted that had he only landed momentarily on a overhang nearly, he might have survived, severely hurt of course, but able to recover. Simon does just that and is awarded, in turn, praise from both the detective and the love of Hannah.
     What happens to James seems murky at best: is he now truly destroyed, believing Simon has died? Has Simon’s survival determined the end of opponent’s activities? Ayoade’s film does not even attempt to reveal the fictional reality it has created. And that is, indeed, the problem with much of film. What does the sickly retro landscape of this film have to do with its subjects? I suppose we can see a society that steals from an age before it in order to make over reality as being a kind of doubling. But it seems, at best, a kind of charming tick: as some reviewers simply commented, Ayoalde, like Wes Anderson, has his own private landscape in which he works.

     Although Kafka does not seem far away from the bureaucratic ridiculousness of Golyadkin Jr./ Golyadkin Sr. tale of Dostoevsky, the various intense encounters Simon has with authority throughout the film, only reiterates his own nerdish sensibilities, without particularly offering us new insights into James’ condition. Ayoade does, through at least two scenes, takes his character back into the horrific relationship he has had with his mother, but other than her being a kind gorgon who can enjoy nothing in life, she seems, living in a perverse nursing home, to be basically far-removed from his current life, and he seems to have a perspective about it that allows him to distance himself from her oppressive demands. And what are we to make, finally, about the whole sequence of life and death events between the two major figures, with its vaguely vampire-like implications?

      If Ayoade, at times, seems like a talented director, he is also a sometimes amateur one, who is still unable to make all the references that apparently so charm him cohere. There are many pleasing elements in The Double, the comic-seriousness of its tone, the slightly estranged landscape it creates, and the oppositional characters it represents; but at moments this movie seems to be pulling in too many directions at all once, forcing some of its elements into highly symbolical significance, while rendering other aspects into something like comic riffs to which the director never returns.

     So let The Double be just that, an apprenticeship-like work of a director discovering his themes and techniques. We need such movies, for they are what eventually result in great film-making. It’s clear, finally, that Ayoade, is learning quickly about what he wants to do and how to do it effectively. If The Double is not great film-making, it is surely far and away better than most of movies we must currently endure by so-called "professionals."

Los Angeles, May 14, 2014

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