The clashing duality paradox has forever fascinated man. Harking way back to ancient roman mythology, with the two faced Janus. And as recent as the latest superhero flick. The theme of duplicity however, is most potently on display when funnelled through the uncanny lens of the doppelgänger motif. In 2013, the odd synchronicity of two films, Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Enemy’ and Richard Ayoade’s ‘The Double’ handling that trope and both debuting at TIFF. With the more eyebrow-raising occurrence of being feature adaptations of two different texts both called ‘The Double’, respectively. Made for a nice irony-in-context, but also an intriguing delve into how two seemingly similar narratives, creatively, handle the matter very differently.
Opening with the epigraph “chaos is order yet undeciphered”, an aphorism that is taken almost word to word from the eponymous novel, The Double by Portuguese writer, Jose Saramago. For a disquieting psychological thriller thats events are entangled in a pattern of spider webs, the frantic, murky and opaque world of Denis Villeneuve’s experimental film Enemy truly mandates lots of deciphering indeed. The movie depicts a decaying Toronto, submerged in a sickly yellow amber and Gray hue. And a cityscape infested with spiders to achieve a haunting oneiric mood. The nightmarish tone is tailored with a restless chilling score to sketch the whole hypnotic otherworldly feel and unsettling atmosphere of Enemy’s smog-fraught Toronto. At the centre of this terror, we are first introduced to Adam, a glum history professor whom is described by Saramago in the novel as “suffering from a temporary weakness of spirit ordinarily known as depression” however this is nothing but the beginning of Adam’s flustering spiral into turmoil. Which is definitely not at all temporary. Soon after that we discover his dead ringer, an assertive bit-actor named Anthony. What lies beneath that calm and collected appearance from deception and lies are swiftly brought to the surface as his wife, Mary played by Sarah Godon, questions whether or not it was truly Adam on the phone. Guiding interrogative questions like, “are you seeing her again?” burst a putatively placid Anthony to ire, hence, intimate a not so glorious and clean history. From there, the turmoil commences.
On the other hand, Richard Ayoade’s loose adaptation Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel may lack the abstractions of gargantuan spiders swarming the city. Yet it also explores the theme of identity within the realms of duplicity. His dark comedy encompasses a dingy and damp setting. Amidst this dour world is the subdued Simon James, whom played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg, is angst personified. Typifying, the brooding un-named place he lives in. A cognizant choice to be kept unidentified, the nightmarish dystopian-looking landscape, depicts a world that is unknown and so remote to amplify the detached mood that reflects Simon’s lonesome, whom in return perennially feels isolated from this down-trodden society.
It is safe to say that the technicality of Richard Ayoade’s tragicomedy is immaculate. Deftly flaunting the psychosocial essence of the narrative, Richard tailors an elaborate audio-visual instrument to articulate the miasma of The Double’s world and the neurosis it incurs on its doom-laden protagonist. Nothing better epitomizes this than the mesmeric opening scene. The audience is introduced to the reclusive Simon in an empty subway, soon enough, he is accosted by the only other passenger on that train carriage and cowed out of his seat, pitifully standing for the rest of the trip. On a brief commentary discussing that very scene for the New York Times’ “Anatomy of a Scene” Ayoade explores the significance of the first couple of minutes in instigating the lead’s characterization, indicating how it was “key to show how easily put-upon this character [Simon] is…” As even in an empty subway this meek white-collar is willing to “yield his seat”. Comparable to how Dostoyevsky introduces the feeble character, in his own piece: “The door from the next room suddenly opened with a timid, quiet creak, as if thus announcing the entrance of a very insignificant person.”
We follow this insignificant clerk to his line of work, frenzied with a relentless sequence of delirious diegetic sounds. The first of a very evocative and meticulously composed sound-design by lead composer and frequent collaborator Andrew Hermit, is very telling of the dreariness of Simon’s profession. The escalating buzzes, clickety-click typewriters and metallic groans all evoke a sense of dizzying bedlam. That is reflective of the retro-futuristic interior: a steampunk cubicle comprising mostly of ageing personnel. By presenting the bureaucratic absurdity amid this unnerving dystopia, the satirical ulterior is disclosed. With Richard listing Orson Welles adaptation of Franz Kafka’s ‘The trial’ (1962) as one of his film’s major muses. The indicative first several minutes are merely one of the instances where The Double flirts tonally with the absurd authoritarian sensibilities. Monumentally, conveying the Kafkaesque undertone that influences the film’s setting.
Subsequent to initial reluctance, Enemy‘s Adam and Anthony decide to meet. With the foil dynamic at the forefront during the confrontation scene in a motel room. The audience had already grasped a glimpse of the disparate between the two characters, not only from the way they carry themselves and through their relationships with others, but also the immense brutalist production design that truly adds a whole new layer of austerity to this chilling world. Employed to conjure an uneasy feel of confinement as both characters try to free themselves and pursue the truth. The exquisite character-specific architecture of Enemy, additionally, conveys a juxtaposition between the two opposing characters. Adam’s apartment feels very bare and empty -evoking a sense of depressing isolation. Whereas Anthony, the actor, has a much sleeker welcoming household reflecting his more outgoing personality. Other little nuances to delineate between the two characters are portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal’s great performance, that range from different postures, movements, little hand gestures and eye-contact. Truly demonstrating a cautious and concerned vs compelled and impetuous face-off during the aforementioned scene. It is pivotal to understand that Anthony is merely a portrayal of Adam’s former self; a hot-blooded playboy. A besetting past he so vehemently tries to escape. Denis believes the film to be “about the power of subconscious and the influence of the past on our lives and the strength of the past.”
To understand that notion further, lets rip a page off of Sigmund Freud’s seminal book, The Uncanny. In it, Freud’s influential analysis of doppelgängers is couched as, “the return of the repressed”. For Adam, this is his subconscious’ lusts for women and sexual gratification. Appearing in the form of Anthony. A harbinger of a past that is entrapped by adulterous desires of infidelity, as heralded at the start with the preface at the nightclub. With Adam trying to eschew and conceal that past from resurfacing, the conflict between the two contrasts ensues. Consequently, the theme of othering remerges every time a disturbed Adam covers his eyes, constantly inclining to conceal such repressed desires from regressing back to visibility. The past self is portrayed as akin to a sore-eye, a constant nuisance, not too dissimilar to a malady. Freud’s theory is re-emphasized, by how Adam’s erotic dreams are reminiscent of his past pleasures, another element of what Freud argued to be the unconscious forces appearing in our dreamlife. Signifying subliminal attempts to appeal to our oppressed temperaments and inclinations.
Despite the spider symbolism being exclusive to the film; completely devised and contrived by Denis, whom professes ” it’s not in the novel, I’m not sure if Saramago would be happy with having something so surreal”. It is undeniably an instrumental element in this surrealistic adaptation of the novel, one that revitalizes the idea of the past invading the present. There are spider connotations that’re scattered throughout the film, from the metro-system cabling forming a web of sorts, and the spider plant at the background of the teacher’s lounge, to a shattered window at the car-wreck that resembles a spiderweb. But what do spiders represent exactly? Well the meaning’s certainly been kept ambiguous. Notwithstanding the unknown and inscrutable influence of spiders on the narrative, Denis has connoted that he illustrated spiders “to express something about femininity that I was looking to express in one image” Therefore, it may be argued that the spiders represent women, or essentially, how Adam views women. The skin-crawling and staggering ending in which his wife turns into a giant spider that is met with his lukewarm sigh shows how entangled he is in this perpetual cycle, unable to escape the overbearing covet for infidelity embodied by his intrusive past.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when Simon James’ exact double, James Simon enters into the mix, no one bats an eye. After all as an unconcerned colleague puts it when Simon approaches him for some aid with the exasperating matter, the latter’s tribulations are only met with sheer indifference, remarking how Simon is “pretty unnoticeable. Bit of a nonperson.” He’s an unplaceable face to his boss, his mother calls him a “disappointment” and constantly scolds him, and the subject of his unrequited love, Hannah played by Mia Wasikowska finds him “creepy”. Therefore, James’ existence, is definitely foreboding to Simon, but, understandably, unalarming to his surroundings. Here a clear distinction between the two features forms, with Enemy, there were solely two scenes where the “two” characters shared the screen, whereas with Ayoade’s film, the man vs the alter ego dynamic occupies the better half of the narrative. Furthermore, unlike Enemy, the doppelgänger isn’t the past the protagonist seeks to evade or eliminate, but rather the person he wishes and would like to become in the future. You see, James to Simon is his exact replica yet complete opposite. As Eisenberg denotes in a 2013 interview with the guardian, explaining his take on it, “James is the personification of everything Simon lacks.” The nebbish, forlorn and apologetic Simon is overshadowed by his polar opposite; a brash, uncompromising suave lookalike that entrances everyone he encounters. Therefore, when their relationship goes sour, Simon eventually realizes he must eliminate the menacing James, in order to surmount the psychological barrier that refrains him from self-actualizing into the person he dreams of becoming. Ultimately maiming himself in an intentionally unsuccessful suicide attempt in order to overcome that burden, and transform to the persona he so yearned to incarnate all along. Finally, as the curtains close, he expresses in relief, “I’d like to think I’m pretty unique.” So, with that transformation, and by unravelling Simon’s very destructive journey of self-discovery, the film proves to be an allegory of an individual’s fractured psyche.
Whether you believe it were some daunting doppelgängers or their own besetting subconscious that haunted the hapless protagonists of The Double and Enemy. Really, one thing’s for certain, you can’t escape yourself.