I saw The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013) at Hull Independent Cinema Project last night, and I enjoyed it more than its trailer had led me to believe I might.
The set design, as per the trailer, is indeed meticulous and overbearingly atmospheric; much of its character is captured in José Arroyo’s description of it in his short review as ‘the present… imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely’. (In terms of its look, the film’s closest relative in many ways is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, as Ayoade has acknowledged, but in terms of feel, The Double does not have, or go for, Brazil’s wide streak of mania, opting instead for humorous deadpan.) Dim, artificial light pervades the film (I don’t remember any scenes in daylight), punctuated by moments of elaborate lighting design, another way in which the film sometimes feels, a bit like its characters, organised to within an inch of lifelessness. The film’s opening scene thoroughly embodies these qualities. Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), the film’s protagonist, sits on an underground train, tunnel lights flashing across his face, the rhythmic clacking of the tracks dominating the soundtrack. A man, whose face we do not see, curtly informs Simon (the film is not afraid to prefigure its central theme as boldly as it introduces its style) ‘You’re in my place.’ A monotone exchange, with long gaps between turns in the ‘conversation’, ensues. Simon protests, but without conviction. After a long beat, the close shot on Eisenberg is replaced by a wider one which confirms that, as we probably suspected, the man is demanding that Simon vacate the one seat in the carriage that is occupied.
Such archness has its pleasures, but they are pleasures of a limited sort. Likewise, achieving such a tone is an achievement, but again, a limited one. But then, just as I was turning against the film, it modulated. Mia Wasikowska’s character, Hannah, the object of Simon’s romantic fixation, becomes the film’s much needed locus of authenticity and tenderness. Her apartment, which Simon views (much in the style of L B Jefferies in Hitchcock’s Rear Window) via a telescope installed in his own apartment across the courtyard, is noticeably softer and warmer, in its set design and lighting, than anything else in the film. I am not so much praising the fact of the film’s positioning of a woman as the object of a man’s desiring and often intrusive gaze and as a means of alleviating that man’s sense of the harshness and futility of his existence, but the way in which the film so successfully captures the feel of such predominantly one-way relationships as these (with their combination of deep feeling on the one hand, and repression and stuntedness on the other), and builds this feel into its architecture, using it to offset, and be offset by, the gloomy environs and affectless exchanges that characterise the rest of the film. The pauses, repetitions and poker-facedness of much of the film’s dialogue gives way to rapid-fire, overlapping, engaged exchanges during some of Simon’s encounters with Hannah (and some with his doppelganger, James). It would be an exaggeration to describe Simon’s exchanges with Hannah as fully authentic or communicative, but there is at least the sense that both parties are invested in making the effort, and Wasikowska’s performance is, for the most part, in a significantly more ‘authentic’ register than the performances in the rest of the film. In the moments where Simon observes Hannah, Ayoade finds perfect details or framings to hang these moments on: as Hannah sleeps, her inhaling and exhaling disturbs a few strands of hair hanging in front of her face; whilst Hannah photocopies a document for Simon, the camera’s angle and close framing, combined with Hannah’s posture, emphasises the nape of Hannah’s neck, and its elegance. There is also a nice moment where Simon returns to his cafe table to discover that Hannah has left, but that she has left behind a note and a coin, instructing him to play a song for her on the jukebox, a moment which Simon embellishes in his head in a well-crafted moment of fantasy.
The things, then, that I admired most about The Double revolved around its (probably) secondary relationship, between Simon and Hannah, rather than the (probably) primary one between Simon and James which more straightforwardly drives the film’s plot and themes (and its marketing). This also explains why I was most engaged by the film’s middle, rather than its beginning or end. However, precisely this tension between ‘foreground’ and ‘background’, and the way the two play off each other, was one of the key pleasures I experienced whilst watching the film, and whilst reflecting afterwards on the experience it offers. Ayoade managed to pack more arresting, eloquent images into this one film than one often sees in a dozen, and he demonstrates a sure hand for combining the elements he works with. On the strength of The Double, I’ve just ordered Submarine (Ayoade, 2010), and I’m very much looking forward to watching it.