Richard Ayoade is a man of many talents, most of which were unquestionably proven in his wonderfully left-field debut film Submarine, perhaps the coming-of-age movie to end all coming-of-age movies. But as it goes in the industry, the sophomore effort is far more significant in putting a director’s mettle on a litmus test. His follow-up, adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella, The Double is a dazzling reinforcement of the man’s sheer creative pizzazz while also pushing his craft further afield in a darker, less-traversed territory in cinema. Which means, The Double is a minor oddity, both crazily structured and maniacally designed that it will garner admiration and criticism in equal measure. I was enthralled by the meticulous dystopian world Ayoade portrayed here, gobsmacked by the level of obsessive detail and attention he puts in every scene. But somehow – when you step back and assess the bigger canvas – Ayoade’s total focus on his craft has compromised something that’s crucially significant in all stories, a beating heart.
As much as Ayoade’s affectations are deliriously entertaining, putting almost every technique in the film book into great use, his obsessive-compulsive approach somehow lessens the overall impact of The Double. He borrows heavily from other masters – the bureaucratic design and absurdist tone of the Coens’ The Hudsucker Proxy, the surreal darkness of Lynch’s Eraserhead, the dystopian nightmare of Gilliam’s Brazil and the paranoia of Hitchcock’s Rear Window – that it’s often hard to identify what Ayoade hasn’t put into his cinematic facsimile. Which is ironic since The Double is about the conflict of identity in its very essence. Viewed from another less cynical perspective, the director uses these references as a springboard to a riveting rhythm and many of the film’s witty touches. Jesse Eisenberg’s supremely performed double-act is cleverly contrasted, the original and doppelgänger engaging in a runaround game of one-upmanship. The latter is winning, of course, as he’s better at everything. But there’s a debatable coda Ayoade delivers in the end – with the original protagonist claiming his fierce identity as ‘unique’ and insinuating the doppelgänger as a ‘fraud’. As a statement of creative identity, it’s inspiring, yet one can’t help but wonder that Ayoade might also be insinuating that The Double is, haughtily, better than its influences, when it could very well be the fraud.
This review has been republished from the BFI London Film Festival 2013 coverage.