Richard Ayoade’s second film is certainly an ambitious affair. Not only is it an adaptation of a famous work of literature, the novella of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky, but it’s more an experiment in filmic language than a narrative proper. The story of a man, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), bored with his life and introduced to another, darker and more aggressive version of his self, the narrative is rather proudly enigmatic and obtuse. Writer-director Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine run layers around themselves as they subvert their narrative not so much through scripting complication but more through visual chicanery. We do not learn much about what is going on from the script – in some sense, it is an experiment in challenging the audience with a narrative that has no real beginning, middle, or conclusion. We’re left to look to the visuals to save us from our confusion, but Ayoade has other things in mind.
Visually, The Double veers close to grapeshot filmmaking, with a director experimenting with different styles, filters, frames, and angles as he goes for break with aplomb. Some of it doesn’t work, but those that do speak for themselves. In particular, his lighting work is tremendous, with a number of shots distorting humans to black holes lit by blaring light shining behind them, serving less to remind they are human than to remind us how much of a struggle it is for any semblance of light or humanity to shine through their black, cantankerous, empty souls. Elsewhere, Ayoade understands well the language of differentiating and blending together two characters played by the same actor (Eisenberg) through visual means – one sequence in particular has one of the Eisenbergs (the calmer Simon, we assume) looking at the other, who is apparently about to jump off a building. The viewing Eisenberg looks from the right side of the screen, only for the edits to get quicker and quicker as tension mounts as the man prepares to jump, only for us to cut to Eisenberg looking from the left of the screen in a tension release that only makes us grow more disconcerted. Is this simply Ayoade flipping the frame, or does the filmic language signal the other, more chaotic Eisenberg watching as well, taking over the calmer one’s actions even when he’s seemingly being watched himself?
It is also rather fitting that the film is mostly a visual affair – the tone of the piece is very much that of an “aquarium” film, where we are made to watch characters from a distance and judge them as an unseen force (read: a director) pokes and prods at them. Ayoade is not the least bit interested in involving us in James’ internal cognitive dissonance. We do not descend into madness – we sit from afar and laugh.
In this context, the film boldly challenges the common law about films that exist on the back of narrative complication and work tirelessly to beckon the audience further into the Rabbit’s Next (the whole Christopher Nolan, Memento, Inception thing). While those films try desperately to get the audience involved in their narrative puzzle box, The Double flouts it. The film amounts to Ayoade asking “why even bother caring about any of this in the first place” and going on to create a film that is intentionally distant and clinical and has no real narrative substance even though it looks like it must be absolutely desperate for some. The word Kubrickian is thrown out a lot, but here is a film that earns the comparison – this is not only a challenging film, but an icy one, and a film that dares to look back on itself and call what it sees a waste of time. While other films are busy wowing us with arbitrary narrative difficulty, The Double is having a laugh at their expense.
Which brings us to the other chief fact of the film: it may not announce it boldly, but it is a comedy of the driest variety. As the film unspools, it often seems like James is being toyed with by an unseen narrator, except the narrator doesn’t so much speak as he/she draws objects or new visual filters into the frame. It’s not unlike those old Warner Bros shorts like “Duck Amuck” where Daffy was tempted and tortured by the animator. We are very much observers to a life on its edge, and we’re made to laugh at it’s very-much nonsensical destruction, and the way life seems to seek out with a sort of pinpoint chaos Simon’s destitution and failure. Those Warner Bros shorts spent time on the surface having a jolly old time mocking the company’s characters, but deep down they were busy completely decimating the laws of continuity editing and the relationship between author and character in storytelling. Here, Ayoade doesn’t achieve something quite this radical, but it is very well that his reach exceeds his grasp.
And it’s all the more surprising for Ayoade’s comedy background. It’s not infrequent for comedians to get involved in filmmaking, but more often than not as a writer, all interested in scripting and wordplay – a director, all interested in visual and aural composition, is less common. And Ayoade is just this, a director, and an astounding formalist at that. If The Double is a bit of a huge mess, it’s grandly dangerous and subversive one, seeing Ayoade far more interested in exploring the visual nature of film than conventional storytelling. The film features little in the way of dialogue, and what little there is seems intentionally mundane. For a comedian, the low-hanging fruit of creating a film that is all dialogue and no images is usually too easy to pass up, but Ayoade gleefully and completely throws himself into making a film which uses visual irony to earn its very British, very dry laughs. In doing so, he announces himself as a filmmaker to watch. The fact that he’s less than fully formed thus far only makes his wild-eyed flouting of filmic language that much more exciting.