The best directorial debut effort of this early decade remains Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, a quizzical coming-of-age romance that showers its audience in bright and sunny hues. Ayoade’s follow up The Double can be seen as the visual antithesis of Submarine. The bright reds and dark blues are swapped for dusty grays and beige. The spontaneity of Ayoade’s camera is also subdued, where it falls in line with the film’s thematic sense of isolation and complacency. It’s a film that reaffirms Ayoade’s strengths as a stylist, but also calls to question the very inquiries that are presented in The Double: what are Ayoade’s concerns and identity as a director?
The Double’s narrative concerns itself with that of a lowly office drone named Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) who, despite his clear brilliance, proves too socially inept to maneuver in his work or life. His self-imposed anxieties prohibit any success with a woman in his office named Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). Yet it’s the arrival of James (Eisenberg in the dual role) that sparks a sense of urgency in Simon’s behavior. It’s confidence and bravado that James offers Simon - Simon’s missing traits that will hopefully win Hannah’s heart.
Ayoade develops a fixating and recurrent image of Simon and James in parallel opposition, often times framed as if the other’s shadow. This shadow relationship that develops between Simon and James is cultivated by the dystopian atmosphere that proves to be The Double’s most accomplished technical feat but also the most distancing. This quasi-apocalyptic universe - as most others have suggested ad nauseum that the film draws its visual design from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and David Lynch’s Eraserhead - operates at odds with the generally humorous dialogue penned by Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine. It does keep the film at a chilling edge, often tinkering with expectations as to how far down this bureaucratic black hole the audience will slip into.
Like Submarine, The Double is surprisingly ingrained with a very universal context despite the specificity of its circumstance and setting. With The Double, the troubles of establishing an identity and competing with colleagues in a massive corporate enterprise immediately registered as human in spite of the heightened surrealism that course through the frames of the picture. It’s an incredibly personal film - one where there’s a sense that Eisenberg feels less like a character and more of a proxy for Ayoade to contend with his own relationships with cinema as both an actor and director.
The Double’s appeal stems from the way the thematic material coalesces with the visual despair that Ayoade achieves. But whereas a sense of warmth could be derived from the frames of Submarine, that same sense is largely absent from The Double. The double viewing here is of mirror qualities: happiness and despair. The Double’s inherent comic qualities give way for one of the most dire and emotionally oppressive endings in some time. What Ayoade accomplishes with Submarine and The Double is a sense of extreme polarity between pictures - an exercise in range, but as a matter of taste, it’s his sunnier disposition that I prefer.