Hardly a rarity in modern cinema, there’s certainly been a resurgence of the actor-turned-director trend of late. Recent directorial ventures from the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Angelina Jolie and even an upcoming project from Ryan Gosling (is there anything the man can’t do) put forth that, à la Keaton Chaplin and Welles, an actor’s place isn’t always in front of the camera.
However, none of these crossovers can be deemed quite so surprising as that of Richard Ayoade. Known predominantly for his portrayal of the buffoonish Moss in Graham Linehan’s farcically brilliant The IT Crowd, Ayoade shocked audiences and critics alike with his mesmerising debut Submarine. Stylish, compelling and funny, it’s a film that illuminates the glow of an indefatigable artistry hereto hidden behind the guise of a comic-actor.
Rather than stand contented with his lot, the director’s follow-up is a further stamp of this artistic presence. It’s a bolder, more experimental piece of filmmaking, less familiar in its dark, studio construction, replacing the Welsh rural expanse of its predecessor with a far more claustrophobic setting. To call The Double ambitious is to call The Life of Brian a loose adaptation. Pulling from sources that vary from Dostoyevsky to Kafka and even Freud, it somehow condenses itself into a 90-minute thriller leaving you with more questions than you started out with. Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon, an unfortunate twenty-something whose life plays out somewhat like the recurrent mishaps of a Beckett stage-play. Ignored by most, undermined by all, Simon spends his days within the dreary confines of his workplace, carrying out tasks that nobody seems to question or even care about. Throughout his misfiring existence, the only glimmer of light lies is his endearing yet creepy affection for colleague Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), illustrated through lengthy scopophiliac peering from his bedroom window. Throw into this dystopian mix a doppelganger, James, who is in every way his superior. Hilarity/ existential crisis ensue.
While Submarine acted in part as a tribute to the booming energy of the French New Wave, The Double harks back to a different style of cinema. Its visual explosiveness is laced with hat-tips to the great psychological thrillers of Polanski, its unrelenting nightmarishness embodying traces of Hitchcockian suspense. Contrast this with a persistent level of caustic humour and you’re left with a rather strange cinematic cocktail with an undeniable unevenness to it.
So many of the film’s thematic strands are left unexplored, left floating in a plot punctuated by an array of distracting cameos. (Two words. Paddy Considine.) Who is the Colonel? And what of the communist-block urban space the narrative inhabits? Eisenberg is Eisenberg as we have always known him, nervous, jittery, and pitiable. And yet, he’s not; in both the roles of Simon and James he conveys the unsettling darkness of a quasi-Satanic Mark Zuckerberg.
If I didn’t know better I’d say The Double is a film that thinks it’s smarter than it actually is, seemingly intent on puzzling its audience by means of its maze-like assembly. But perhaps that’s missing the point. To take it at its primary motif, that of an unshakeable identity crisis, it’s certainly an effective work, brimming with eeriness and a frightening sense of the uncanny. Because of this, however, it will leave some feeling slighted as an interesting but fragmented mass too sparse to really sink your teeth into.