*. The obvious place to start is to say that this is a film based on the Dostoyevsky novella The Double, and then to say that it is isn’t, really.
*. It is a movie about a double or doppelgänger and shares a couple of minor plot points with Dostoyevsky’s tale, but that’s about it. Meanwhile, the divergences are pretty big. Dostoyevsky’s Golyadkin doesn’t have a girlfriend, for example, or a mother that we meet. He also doesn’t attempt suicide. What he has instead of all this is a shrink, a character that’s missing here.
*. Visually, it’s less like anything you imagined Dostoyevsky would look like and more like another vision of Kafka by way of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. It looks great — the colour and lighting in particular achieves a kind of chiaroscuro reminiscent of Caravaggio’s tenebrism — but it isn’t terribly original in terms of the set design and decoration. We’ve been here before.
*. In terms of plot the main change is the introduction of an element of sexual humiliation. James Simon is the alpha-male stud that the milksop Simon James dreams of becoming. This is more The Nutty Professor or Mad Men territory than The Double (James Simon is a kind of Don Draper, usurping an identity not his own). Dostoyevsky’s story was more about class humiliation than sexual one-upmanship, and the change is interesting, since class is an increasingly important issue in contemporary society and sex (I think) less so.
*. But then, it’s not a movie that seems interested in commenting on the way we live now. It intentionally sets itself in a time and place that looks a bit like Soviet-era Eastern Europe, where the culture (music, TV shows) and technology seem part of a civilization that was never quite our own. I don’t know if this dilutes its message or makes it stronger.
*. I think Ty Burr, writing in the Boston Globe, had something very interesting to say in this regard: “It’s a noble try, but the problem is that Ayoade’s modern hell feels so. . . 20th century. The themes and visual ideas that sustain the Kafka/Orwell/Gilliam dystopian vision — the nightmare bureaucracies that imprison us — have become outdated in a world where we’re liberated yet enslaved by our consumer technology, personally empowered for maximum self-expression yet, more than ever, tiny widgets at the mercy of forces that watch us and re-sell us. The Double is a striking piece of work, but it’s nostalgic for a kind of paranoia that may no longer exist. There are different things to frighten us now. Maybe Richard Ayoade should start making movies about them.”
*. And yet director Richard Ayoade wasn’t going for an anti-authoritarian message. The Colonel (a cameo James Fox) even seems like a decent enough guy in the end and not the leader of a ruthless corporatist/totalitarian state. In an interview included with the DVD Ayoade explains that the particular vision of hell being described here consists of the world’s simple indifference to Simon’s suffering. Or really just indifference to Simon period. I would, however, argue that this is a very twentieth-century anxiety as well, albeit perhaps magnified in our own time.
*. Would it have been a more effective film if they’d played it straight, whatever playing such a story straight might mean? I don’t know. I guess it’s meant to be a nightmare and it does a good job with that. Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska both look odd enough to belong in such a strange, old-fashioned world, even if their love story is corny and its resolution too tidy. Their weirdness does make it all seem less dangerous though.