Richard Ayoyade’s recent directorial adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double proves masterly in conjuring up an atmosphere of the utmost alienation and suffocation. A pervading dread seeps through every frame, and the eerie ambience of the film is something you just can’t shake off when viewing it. To conjure up such a strong mood consistently throughout is a really impressive achievement, especially when you consider that The Double is only Ayoyade’s second foray into directing.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the character Simon, a painfully shy clerk working at a bleak, shadowy government agency and overlooked to the point of invisibility.
Already on the brink of suicide, his life takes an unexpected turn for the worse when his exact double, called James, suddenly appears as a co-worker. Although James is physically indistinguishable from Simon, he couldn’t be more different in terms of his personality and the way he is perceived by others. James is self-assured, charms everyone he meets – and unscrupulously begins to take over every aspect of Simon’s life.
The bizarre entrance of the double is, as Ayoyade put it in an interview, ‘an absurd, impossible situation born out of a psychological crack-up’, but this is not the only reason why the situation is so very unsettling for the viewer. More than this, the uncanniness of the entire scenario, in the Freudian definition of the uncanny (that is, an instance where something is familiar, yet placed in a certain context where it becomes entirely unfamiliar and dissonant) is what makes it particularly disturbing.
Ayoyade clearly owes a huge debt to Kafka – this is evident both in The Double’s dystopian vision and the dehumanisation that Simon feels, which I interpreted as the predominant cause of his ‘psychological crack-up’.
But watching The Double isn’t a completely dark experience – on the contrary, there are some great comedic moments in the film (which largely come from Simon’s awkwardness). The balance between the overall darkness of the tale and its more comedic aspects is struck very well.
The Double raises all kinds of existential questions. It will leave you interrogating your most fundamental beliefs about selfhood, and what constitutes your individuality.