There are occasionally movies that come out that suffer the consequence, despite any merits they might have apart from this, of existing on the backs of a multitude of other films that have preceded them with one common and popular theme. The most frequently cited example of this is Raging Bull, now acclaimed for its innovative sound design and famously dramatic dolly zoom, it was panned at the time by critics for being a relatively generic boxing movie. Obviously whatever I write to follow this statement is going to be met with some disdain given the now-wildly acclaimed comparison, but I’m going to try anyway. Richard Ayoade’s The Double suffers some of this same burden by appearing to put all of its clout behind a plot twist that everyone could have seen coming – that (and don’t read this if you don’t want to have the movie spoiled) Simon James’ doppelganger is nothing more than a figment of his imagination. But I want to point out why this movie is so much better if you can look past this fact, because it isn’t exactly true for one thing, but also because once you understand why it’s not true, I think it’s easy to see the movie in a new and much more forgiving light.
Let’s go back a little bit. Briefly, in the 1920’s, during and after the First World War, Germany’s domestic film industry was both growing and isolated as a result of their country’s involvement in the war. There was a shift away from dramatic realism in favor of intentionally skewing depictions of what was supposedly actually occurring in a story in order to present the audience with the impact of what the protagonist was experiencing. Delusions were favored over clear and objective truths, and although the period was short lived, it’s still had its influence on the film industry as we know it today. If we were to look at other recent movies that have used schizophrenia or disassociative identity disorder as mechanisms to push their plot forward and to show the internal landscape of a character (Fight Club, A Beautiful Mind, and Shutter Island, to name a few), we would find that they typically have one trait in common, and it’s a trait which is absent in The Double. In most of these stories, the figments that the protagonists have invented are never really confirmed by the world around them, and in many cases the absence of this confirmation is even starkly planted in front of the audience from a very early point (with the exception of Shutter Island, which is based on an elaborate rouse.) In all cases though, by the end, the protagonist is confronted with the incompatibility of their delusions with the perceptions of the outside world. It’s important to realize that The Double never shows this inconsistency. The world that Simon James is a part of confirms both the existence of himself, as well as that of James Simon, and to the bitter end as well, despite the fact that Simon has the power to destroy James by destroying himself.
The reason that this small detail is important is because it gives us one of only two options to choose from when interpreting the movie. Either every character shares the exact same delusion as Simon, which is unlikely for obvious reasons, or else the whole movie is told from the vantage point of being Simon’s delusion. If the latter is true, then every character depicted on screen, including Simon himself, must also be some grotesque caricature of the people in real life who he might be interacting with (or might be), which explains much of the rampant apathy and hostility of his environment. It also explains how Hannah lets Simon off fairly easily for his stalker-ish and voyeuristic tendencies, if we can see these depictions as criticisms of internal focus rather than actual behavior.
The beautiful thing about this movie, with all of this in mind, is that despite having a script which could have easily descended into extreme awkwardness on-screen, Ayoade manages to make every scene compelling and completely immersive. Not only is this important in a very general sense for a movie, it’s absolutely critical if you want to make one focused on the expressionistic portrayal of a single character, and to show the world in the hostile and alien light that they perceive it in. Lighting cues are extremely dramatic and match a set design which is at once gritty realism while simultaneously being ridiculously goofy. There is a constant moving of light and shadows and fog throughout the industrial landscape of the movie that allows even still shots to maintain our complete attention, the music is incredibly beautiful and matches the pacing of the movie perfectly, and, as a small bonus point, this is one of the few movies that shows a relatively impoverished character constantly facing the consequences of that poverty, and without really highlighting it as a central theme. He lives in a cramped apartment, his suit does not fit him properly, he is portrayed as being completely disposable in his dead-end job, he can not afford care for his mother, and everyone involved with him walks all over him. Despite these interesting features that get highlighted in the plot portion of the writing for this movie though, the story could have very easily been overclouded by awkward dialogue if the visual imagery did not match this awkwardness perfectly, and this type of thematic consistency is something I believe shows an incredible amount of talent and care to execute effectively.
The Double is a sort of late coming-of-age movie based on Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name. It focuses on the struggle of Simon James, a low level factory employee as he tries to gain character and substance as a non-person. The movie focuses on the fight to gain dominant personhood between Simon, who is thoughtful but self-absorbed, and James, who is brazenly selfish and the very image of what Simon believes would get him what he wants in the world. The transformation that Simon undergoes by the end of the movie takes place only after receiving two revelations and after considerable pressure that he might be pushed out of existence completely. The first is the sudden death of a pigeon that comes crashing into the window where he works, which he sees later as forming a nest for new life. The second comes only after being hit in the face with a shovel; a not-so-subtle metaphor for what it takes for a person to change, but more importantly, an act which shows Simon that he is very much alive and that the world is not just going to pass quietly through him as he waits for something to happen, a silent and vulnerable onlooker.