A Pair of Doubles: Two Takes on the Doppelgänger
In 2013, two films were released which, although very different in style, have such a similar theme and concept that it is hard to avoid comparison. Both are adapted from classic fiction; both tell the story of a man meeting his doppelgänger, and use that encounter with his mysterious twin to represent an identity crisis of some kind.
In both films, the double is presented as if literally real, yet it is understood, sooner or later, that only one person exists. The device of the ‘twin’ is simply a creative way to portray a man who is somehow divided within himself.
The films in question:
2013 Director: Richard Ayoade
Screenplay by Richard Ayoade and Avi Korine, adapted from the novella The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
2013 Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Javier Gullón, adapted from the novel The Double by José Saramago.
This adaptation involves less change to the original story than Enemy. Dostoevsky’s novel is updated and streamlined but not completely altered.
The plot, although fantastical and filled with partially hidden meaning, is outwardly straightforward. Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), an office worker living in an unspecified place and time, is meek, put upon, and uncertain to a comically pitiful degree. He is barely noticed by his employer or co-workers, shoved aside by strangers, and ignored by almost everyone. Even his own mother is indifferent to him. Simon has a crush on office mate Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the only person who treats him with any kindness, but lacks the nerve to express his feelings.
The film’s mysterious setting seems to be rather grim, the living spaces stark and colourless. Simon works for a business, led by a shady individual known only as The Colonel, whose exact purpose is never identified, and whose television commercials come across as vaguely menacing. When Simon witnesses a man committing suicide by leaping from a window, he calls for help. The police seem to regard suicide as a commonplace event, and even speculate casually on Simon’s chances of killing himself in the near future.
At work, Simon is having trouble. His employee ID card does not seem to work properly, and his colleagues of seven years often don’t recognise him. It is as if he barely exists, and has difficulty proving he does. During this spell of trouble, a new employee named James Simon arrives, who is Simon’s exact double. Oddly, no one else at the office seems to notice the uncanny resemblance. James is everything Simon is not: outgoing, popular, confident, respected. The boss admires his work, and the others are friendly toward him, while Simon’s position continues to deteriorate.
At first, James befriends Simon, tries to encourage him to be more assertive, and even advises him on how to get Hannah’s attention; but soon, James begins to take advantage of Simon. He has them switch places at work when it is to James’ advantage, taking credit for Simon’s work, and gradually infiltrates Simon’s entire life. He goes from assisting Simon’s efforts with Hannah to winning her for himself.
James’ takeover of Simon’s life becomes more and more invasive until Simon, who is told he “no longer exists, according to the system,” loses his job. He is contemplating suicide when he is interrupted by the need to intervene in Hannah’s suicide attempt, brought on by the rejection of the heartless James. Simon devises a way, within the context of this nonsensical, evil-twin alternate universe, to overcome James and reclaim his own life.
The set design is an enormous part of The Double. The time period in which the film is set is deliberately unclear, as the buildings, trains, clothing, technology, and common household items are a well blended mixture of multiple eras, mostly ranging from Victorian through mid-1960s, giving the film a fairy-tale quality that works well with the story. In addition, a combination of claustrophobic interiors and dim, shadowy lighting effects gives everything a slightly sinister appearance, which is intensified or relieved according to the mood of each scene. The comic but disturbing tendency of technology to turn against its users, and particularly against Simon, is another constant theme. The effect is very reminiscent of the set design from Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film, Brazil, and has a similar impact on the story.
Eisenberg is very effective as Simon and his intrusive double; and the supporting cast are excellent, particularly Mia Wasikowska as Hannah, and Wallace Shawn in a small role as Simon’s cheerfully dismissive boss.
The two films are a bit like twins themselves, outwardly similar but with widely diverse personalities. Enemy makes it fairly clear that the doppelgänger is an illusion, while The Double treats the mysterious twin as real within the context of the fantasy story. The Double has a sense of the ridiculous and doesn’t avoid comedy, while Enemy is grimly serious from beginning to end. The Double optimistically grants its hero freedom from his ‘evil twin,’ while Enemy hints that escape from one’s darker side is impossible. Both find interesting ways to explore the human condition using the very effective device of dividing each person against himself.
“Chaos is order yet undeciphered.”
While Enemy is based on José Saramago’s novel The Double, it takes considerable liberties with the plot, changing everything from the story’s structure, to the timeline, to the central characters’ names, keeping only the bare bones of Saramago’s theme. Producer Niv Fichman had previously produced the excellent 2008 film adaptation of Saramago’s earlier novel, Blindness; that film’s quality convinced Saramago to grant Fichman the movie rights to The Double, not long before his death.
The film is a taut, grim, suspenseful drama, with an excellent cast, but with an unusual, often confusing narrative that freely blends fantasy and reality.
The basic story: history teacher Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhall), is a quiet, slightly depressed man. While at home watching a video of a second-rate comedy, he notices an actor in a minor role who is his exact double. Fascinated, he identifies the actor in the film’s credits, tracks down his real name, Anthony Clair, and locates copies of his other films and watches them. As Adam’s obsession grows, he even visits the actor’s agency office, allows himself to be mistaken for Anthony, and accepts the actor’s personal mail. Finally, he obtains Anthony’s phone number and calls his home. Anthony’s wife answers and takes Adam’s voice for her husband’s, and Adam hangs up in confusion.
Anthony’s wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), becomes suspicious about the mysterious calls that begin coming in, and tracks Adam to his workplace. Annoyed by the disturbance this is causing, Anthony agrees to meet with Adam. They observe that they are identical, even down to matching scars on the abdomen (the source of which is explained later). Overwhelmed, Adam hands Anthony his stolen mail and quickly leaves.
Knowing of one another’s existence seems to cause an upheaval in both men’s lives, particularly in their relationships with their respective wife and girlfriend. This tension culminates in Anthony insisting that he and Adam change places, Anthony taking Adam’s girlfriend, Mary (Melanie Laurent) away for the weekend, while Adam takes over Anthony’s apartment and, by implication, his wife. The weekend concludes with Anthony crashing his car while taking Mary home following an argument, their survival of the crash left uncertain.
It is very clear, however, that there is more to Enemy than the basic storyline. There are scenes that overlap or repeat, which don’t seem to make sense, which contradict one another. And then, of course, there are the spiders: giant spiders which appear periodically over the course of the film, including in the opening scene. So what is really going on?
The key to the story is, first, that Adam and Anthony are really the same person, or conflicted halves of the same person; and second, that events are not shown in chronological order. The events as presented form a simple fantasy story about a man meeting his doppelgänger, but rearranging the scenes reveals the real story about only one man, not two; a man who is trying to overcome his mistakes and get his life back on track, particularly in terms of his relationship with the women in his life. Specifically, it is a man who has left his wife for a mistress, regrets the decision, and is now trying to return to and re-establish their relationship. The true story becomes clear only gradually, as the film unfolds, and is not fully revealed until the end.
The approach is a little like that of the clever 2000 Christopher Nolan film, Memento, about a man with no short-term memory, whose situation is gradually revealed by showing the same series of events over and over, adding a little more information each time, so that we slowly discover the truth while sharing the main character’s limited perspective. Similarly, we see the events in Adam Bell’s life at first through the filter of his own feelings and interpretations, and even through his dreams and fantasies, but beneath the surface is reality, showing itself bit by bit.
The film hints at this scrambled order in the first few minutes, when a brief scene of Adam teaching his class is replayed a few minutes later; this repeated scene containing further hints in the content of his lecture, which refers several times to world events happening twice, or political patterns repeating themselves. We are aware almost from the beginning that we are watching scenes from two slowly converging stories, and also that at least some of what we see cannot be real. The superficial story of a mysterious double seems to remain intact for some time, the truth breaking through in full only during the final few scenes.
The two-level story is made more complicated by the fact that Adam’s dreams and fantasies are included in the storyline, some of them clearly imaginary, others appearing, at first, to be real events. Flashback scenes may be genuine memories, or memory altered by regrets or wishful thinking. The entire story is filtered through Adam/Anthony’s subconscious, and the significance of each event in his mind is transmitted through lighting, camera angle, and musical score, so that we recognise when a situation is distressing to the main character, even before we understand why.
The first image we see on screen is a close-up of a key, a distinctive, square-headed brass key, held in a man’s hand. The key reappears in the final few scenes, and proves to be the “key” to understanding the real story. It is the key to an underground club which provides live sex shows to a select clientele. A brief opening scene shows the main character in the audience, watching in fascination. One of the female performers releases an enormous spider, which she proceeds to ritually crush to death under her high-heeled boot. From there we proceed to the main storyline.
The spiders, as it appears and as the screenwriter has confirmed, were symbols from the main character’s subconscious. Spiders’ best known characteristics include the ability to capture and hold their prey in webs, and the tendency of the female to devour its mate. Adam/Anthony has dreams or fantasies involving spiders following tense confrontations with the women in his life, giving us a clear enough idea of where his troubles lie. Half of him wants to remain faithful to his wife, but his other half sees this as bondage and diminishment.
By the final scene, we are able to understand the real story behind the doppelgänger fantasy – with the exception of one detail. Because of the way the timeline is set out, we can’t be sure if Anthony was unfaithful to his wife, apologised, and rebuilt their relationship; or whether infidelity has been an ongoing pattern which the hero repeatedly tries and fails to overcome. The references to repeating patterns suggest failure; but that aspect is left undetermined, allowing for either interpretation. We are left to draw our own conclusions about whether our hero ultimately overcomes his ‘enemy.’
For further viewing:
The doppelgänger theme is explored, in a way very similar to Enemy, in the critically praised but not very well-known 2002 film, Adaptation.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman had been attempting to adapt the novel The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. He found it so difficult, he instead wrote a script about his own difficulties in completing the adaptation, making it a writer’s version of 81/2, but with the ‘evil twin’ theme.
If the confusion of a story told through a character’s subconscious, as in Enemy, appeals to you, the ultimate experience of that kind may be the 2011 film Keyhole, by gonzo director Guy Maddin.
A man with a shady past (Jason Patric) is intent on walking through his home and reaching his wife (Isabella Rossellini) in their upstairs bedroom.
Simple enough, except the process, which takes over 90 minutes, is shown by means of a barrage of images from the man’s memories, fantasies, and subconscious mind, with virtually no concessions to concepts like reality or plot structure. It’s a long, strange trip.