Wednesday, August 6, 2014

War of the Doppelgängers : Enemy and The Double

 It seems to happen every few years: two films come out at roughly the same time that have a similar narrative "hook". You might remember this from years past: asteroids (Armageddon and Deep Impact), magicians (The Prestige and The Illusionist), biopics (Capote and Infamous). fighter jets (Top Gun and Iron Eagle), or, uh, insects (A Bug's Life, Antz). This past weekend, I decided to look at such a pairing, this time dealing with a favorite subject of mine: the doppelgänger. Both films are from 2013 but were widely released this year: Enemy and The Double.

 Okay, so I'm going to need you to bear with me here: after finishing a doppelgänger double feature, my head is swimming a bit. I'm trying to avoid Foreigner jokes, so feel free to make them yourselves. Enemy and The Double are distinct enough that they haven't bled together, but there is one unusual, albeit tertiary, connection: The Double is adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella of the same name. Enemy is also adapted from The Double, but not Dostoevsky's; it's based on José Saramago's novel of the same name. So even the source material has a "doppelgänger effect."  Still following me? We've only scratched the surface of these strange films.

 Starting in the order I watched them, Enemy is adapted from The Double by Javier Gullón and directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendes), and is ostensibly the story of Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a history professor in Ontario. On a whim, he decides to break from his daily pattern and rents a film, and in it he notices something very strange. The actor playing a bellhop looks exactly like Adam. Obsessed with finding out more about the local background actor, Adam follows a trail of breadcrumbs to Anthony Claire (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is, in every way his physical double. When Adam foolishly calls, Anthony's pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers, and thinking she's speaking to her husband, suspects him of cheating (again). Intrigued by Adam, both Anthony and Helen decide to meet him (separately), but for the sheepish professor, it's too much to take in. Unfortunately for Adam, Anthony isn't going to back off so easily, and when he turns his eye to Adam's girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent), it's only a matter of time before the line between identities blurs.

 Or has it already? Enemy is thick with suggestive imagery, particularly of arachnids. The film actually begins with Anthony and the doorman from his apartments (Tim Post) entering a "hush hush" club in the sort of building you'd expect to see in Hostel. The main attraction for sweaty, uncomfortable businessmen, appears to be a woman wearing nothing but heels crushing a tarantula, which may or may not have a direct bearing on the narrative. Depending on how you interpret the "web" imagery throughout Enemy, or the eventual presence of a spider floating above the city, it's hard to miss the cyclical nature of the film. Villeneuve and Gullón spell it out early in the picture, both through Adam's lectures but also in the repetition of his day (teach, go home, sex with Mary, Mary leaves, visibly upset).

 What the spiders represent and their connection to Adam and Anthony is also a matter of interpretation, as nothing is directly spelled out. A few visual clues sprinkled throughout Enemy suggest what might actually be going on, and there's a telling conversation between Adam and his mother (Isabella Rossellini) the nearly gives it away. But there's no real "twist" in Enemy - only a gradual unfolding of the repercussions of Adam's first lecture(s?). The final shot is, depending on how you read the spider metaphor, either a puzzler or the last piece of the puzzle, but I suspect that one could come to various "readings" of what Enemy "means."

  The entire film is cast in a sickly, yellow pallor, indicative of the state of mind of at least one (but probably all) of the main characters. Gyllenhaal distinguishes Adam from Anthony so well, both in physical performance and in delivery of dialogue that I never doubted they were two distinct characters, despite knowing it was the same actor. Laurent is in less of the film than Gadon, but makes an impression that's hard to shake. Gadon carries much of the emotional arc of the film - she meets Adam before Anthony does, and her perplexed reaction to him (he doesn't know who she is) is crushing. The impact of his existence hurts her more deeply than it does Adam, a meek and shrunken individual every bit the opposite of the confident, scheming Anthony. That is, if either really exists. Without giving too much away, there are elements of Enemy that reminded me of Mulholland Dr, but in a more abstract sense. The shared dreams and experiences of the doppelgängers don't directly point towards a revelation in the story: Villeneuve and Gullón are content to imply, to suggest, right up until the very end. Or the beginning.

 The Double is a less abstract but in many ways more impressionistic film exploring similar territory, albeit based on an older (and arguably more bizarre) story. A colleague of mine mentioned that he was impressed anyone would even try to adapt Dostoevsky's "weirdest" novel, which he described as "Jung 50 years before Jung." If there was anyone with a sensibility to make it work, The Double landed in the capable hands of Richard Ayoade (Submarine), who crafts it into a film that I can only describe as unique. I feel like doing The Double an injustice by suggesting that it resembles Fight Club by way of Brazil, but there's an element to Ayoade's stylistic approach that is highly reminiscent of the latter, with elements towards the end similar to the former. That said, The Double isn't quite like anything most of the time.

 The universe seems to hate Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a shy, withdrawn employee of a nameless corporation run by The Colonel (James Fox). His supervisor, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn) calls him Stanley and assumes he's new - Simon has been there for seven years - and his security badge has somehow gone corrupt. The surly security guard downstairs (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) insists that Simon is a visitor and threatens him at every opportunity. His printer doesn't work. He loses his briefcase on the subway. The waitress at the restaurant he frequents (Cathy Moriarty) is openly hostile to him. His mother calls him a "disappointment." Even the elevators refuse to work when he's on them. And yet, Simon takes this all in stride. This, it would seem, is his life.

 His one bright spot is a fascination (or is it obsession) with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), his co-worker who lives in the apartment complex across from him. He senses they're kindred spirits, but can't muster the courage to tell her. Instead, he spies on her with a telescope at night. It's the highlight of his otherwise miserable day, it would seem. One night, he looks up and sees a man staring back at him with a pair of binoculars. The man waves, and them leaps to his death. The police sent to investigate (John Corkes and Craig Roberts) ask Simon a few questions and determine he's a "maybe" for a future suicide attempt. This won't be the last time someone tells Simon he's going to kill himself, but let's not get too far ahead.

 After being ejected from a mandatory company ball, Simon has a bit of a break, mentally, and the next day at work, James Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) starts in a similar job. Everybody loves James, and no one seems to notice that he looks exactly like Simon, much to Simon's consternation. Simon's co-worker Harris (Noah Taylor) admits that "maybe" they look alike, but that Simon has a forgettable face. Now, much to my surprise, unlike Enemy - which puts Adam and Anthony together sparingly - Simon and James are frequently inhabiting the same space, interacting, getting into trouble together, and pretending to be the other ("How can we get in trouble? We have the same face.") The outgoing, gregarious James gives Simon advice, and helps ease him out of his shell, while Simon gives James the necessary assistance to do a job he knows literally nothing about. But, of course, as with any doppelgänger, James has an ulterior agenda.

 There is a predictability built into the story structure of The Double that worried me early on - the deck is stacked against Simon to almost comical extremes, but rather than make me sympathetic towards him, I kind of disliked his willingness just to take it. Ayoade asked Eisenberg to study Buster Keaton, whose body language epitomizes a man who accepts the rotten luck in life, and Simon is just content to take it. But there's only so much I could take at the outset of the picture. Thankfully, James is not immediately antagonistic, and the building of their relationship (if it exists in the first place) provides The Double with a breath of fresh air, like Sam Lowry's dreams in Brazil. The inevitable betrayal of that trust, coupled with Jame's conquest of Hannah, at least happens after Simon feels confident enough not just to take it. He begins to fight back, not always successfully, but a late revelation about the nature of his doppelgänger loops the film back on itself, and allows Simon to take advantage of James in a way the latter couldn't anticipate.

 Ayoade's visual presentation of The Double gives it the feeling of a lucid nightmare, of a dystopian future that's simultaneously retro (while I don't think it's ever stated, The Double seems to take place in an alternate 1980s). It's doesn't draw attention to itself, but the television program Simon is fond of and the computers they use are clearly several generations removed from the 21st Century. His scene transitions are often inspired, capitalizing on isolated faces in darkness that suddenly emerge in new settings. While Enemy sparingly uses split screen or digital technology, Eisenberg is almost constantly interacting with himself, and the seams aren't apparent in the slightest. Simon and James are so different that it only becomes confusing near the end of the film which is which (you have to look at the shoes). Hannah is introduced in another subway car, bathed in an impossibly angelic light that I can only compare to cut-aways of Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers. Like Fight Club, that's not something I would imagine I'd be using to reference in The Double.

 The screenplay by Ayoade and Avi Korine (Mr. Lonely) doesn't spend too much time worrying about the nature of Simon and James - there's a visual suggestion of when it happens, but not why. The film is, instead, focused on not wasting a single moment on superfluous information; everything (and everyone) is in some way relevant to how The Double ends. Every plot point, or seemingly irrelevant detail, comes into play as Simon goes barreling off the rails, to the final scene, which can be interpreted in a few ways. Oh, and without spoiling anything, Simon isn't the only person in the film who has a doppelgänger. It's a small scene, but one that hints at something larger in the world of the film.

 Eisenberg is good - maybe too good - as the put-upon Simon, so much so that I was happy when James appeared to make the little weenie stand up for himself. James is less sketched out - Eisenberg plays him as an Id out of control, and it's easy to loathe him late in the film. It would be easy to suggest Wasikowska plays Hannah as the newly coined "Manic Pixie Girl" type, but there's something much more interesting about her performance. She taps into a longing that Simon senses, but not one that requires him to be complete. Her arc with James is arguably more interesting as the film goes on, reaching a conclusion that improves the overall narrative. There are a number of cameos from well known names and faces, some of whom worked with Ayoade in the past, but I won't spoil them for you. I will say that I didn't recognize Sally Hawkins, who has a tiny role in the film, but I did immediately catch the extended cameo from Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis as the janitor in Hannah's apartment building.

 When it comes to this particular doppelgänger double feature, I'm not sure which one I would recommend more. On the one hand, Enemy is more abstract and relies on a serious reality "break" to make it clear what we're seeing isn't necessarily what "is." On the other, The Double is much less concerned with the "why" than its repercussions, but is more impressionistic in its presentation. Another friend of mine couldn't finish The Double - he said it was "too weird," and it does take a certain willingness to accept Ayoade's world on his terms (and, I would gather, Dostoevsky's). I wish I could speak to either of them as adaptations, but in this instance I can only judge them as films. Enemy makes for a great discussion piece, but might be too frustrating in its unwillingness to do more than imply for audiences. The Double is reminiscent of a number of films I'm very fond of but might alienate viewers at the outset with a protagonist who is only barely likable.

 I don't wish to make it sound like I didn't enjoy either film. Quite the opposite is the case, and I'm hesitant to give either one the edge. Unlike, say, The Prestige, which I prefer to The Illusionist, it's harder to say clearly that Enemy or The Double is the better "doppelgänger" film. Each has its own merits, its own problems, and I feel like either film could spark a fascinating conversation between viewers. One is a distinctly suggestive mystery, filled with unaddressed symbolism, and the other is a very black comedy that makes little effort to suggest reality applies. I enjoy them for different reasons, and find the contrasts help, rather than hinder, the act of seeing them back-to-back. That said, I think you'd be just fine watching one or the other on their own, depending on which suits your tastes more. Double doppelgänger features might be too much to digest. At least you have two appealing choices.

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