Two recent movies, both very interesting but in different ways, explore the theme of the doppelganger, a literary term for a stranger who looks exactly like you. The doppelganger is supposed to be bad luck, and often symbolizes the shadowy, unacknowledged parts of ourselves.
The Double, directed by the young English filmmaker Richard Ayoade is based on an early novel of the same name by Dostoevsky. Jesse Eisenberg plays a timid, morbidly self-conscious loner named Simon James, living in an unnamed country that looks like a cross between Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and the dreamscapes of Franz Kafka. He works in a grimy depressing office where no one recognizes him even though he’s worked there for years, with a hilariously patronizing boss played by Wallace Shawn. His only solace is to gaze at Hannah, a neighbor and co-worker played by Mia Wasikowska, although he’s too frightened to ask her out. Then a new man is hired by the company—James Simon, his exact double, except that the newcomer is heedlessly brash and self-confident, quickly becoming everyone’s favorite, including Hannah’s, and gradually threatening to replace Simon in every way.
Eisenberg is clearly having a good time, playing the two contrasting sides of the same coin with relish. The dystopian world of the film shows the influence of a steampunk aesthetic—the decaying infrastructure and its failing machinery deftly mirroring the main character’s psychic collapse. American and English accents co-exist in a somewhat distracting manner, but if I had to pick a fault it’s that the film abstract, highly stylized aesthetic limits the viewer’s emotional involvement. Still, it’s an amusing and inventive movie that bravely refuses to offer a cure for the anxiety it depicts.
Enemy is a film by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve based on a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author Jose Saramago also called The Double. Its tone is far more serious. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a history teacher at a Toronto university named Adam, living a rather routine existence, until by chance he rents a movie on DVD and notices a bit actor in one of the scenes who looks exactly like him. Experiencing a strange obsession that he doesn’t understand, he finds the name of the actor from the credits, rents his other films, and eventually feels compelled to contact the man, who turns out to live in the same city with his pregnant wife. At first the actor, Anthony, also played by Gyllenhaal, rejects Adam’s attempts to meet, but eventually agrees. Unfortunately, this encounter brings out the darkest impulses in both of them, drawing Anthony’s wife and Adam’s girlfriend into the vortex as well. Let’s just say you don’t want a look-alike stalking you.
With a soft, spectral lighting scheme and haunting musical score by Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans, the film makes the city seem like a ghostlike, threatening landscape. Villeneuve plays with the point of view so that we’re sometimes uncertain which one of the doubles we’re following, and Gyllenhaal is great at creating two distinct personalities. Around the edges of the story, always tinged with a feeling of menace, fantastic and unreal symbolism occasionally intrudes. The final shot is a devastating shift from the apparently realistic film narrative into the mind of a dangerous and unhinged personality. Enemy is ambiguous enough to be genuinely disturbing.
The Double and Enemy both played in Tucson earlier this year. They are now available on DVD.