Seeing double in Hockey's dystopia


The Double (M). Director: Richard Ayoade. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska. 93 minutes

Satirical dystopian fantasies don't get much bleaker. Richard Ayoade's The Double, freely adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name, sees a man come face to face with another who is physically identical, but personally his opposite. The film interrogates notions of meaning and identity against the backdrop of a degraded, urban near-future that is frighteningly familiar. Its conclusions are not pretty.

It bears more than a little comparison to Terry Gilliam's 1985 masterpiece Brazil. Ayoade, like Gilliam, has a background in television comedy (Gilliam was an original Python and Ayoade cut his teeth on the likes of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace and The Mighty Boosh). This pedigree sees both filmmakers marry a sublime sense of the absurd to their darker preoccupations.

Brazil posited a post-Orwellian nightmare in which bureaucracy, rather than autocracy, was the source of brutal oppression suffered by its hero, office drone Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce). The Double takes place against a similarly dehumanising white-collar backdrop, that seems more industrial than corporate; coldly monochromatic, and rackety with the click and wheeze of ubiquitous technology.

Here, humans, too, often seem like machines. At one point Ayoade's protagonist Simon (Eisenberg) is obstructed from exiting a train by the synchronised actions of two luggage handlers. In general the characters that populate this dystopian world seem sedated by the depressing and dependable fug of routine. This is especially true of Simon himself, whom this existence has all but drained of personal agency.

Simon is a consumer of cheesy television, and a voyeur of the woman of his fancy, beguiling co-worker Hannah (Wasikowska), who lives in an apartment opposite his own; in short, an observer, not a participant in life. He is not alone in this bleak existence: while watching Hannah through his telescope, he witnesses a suicide, and soon learns that the city is in fact in the grip of a suicide epidemic. Someone quips that Simon's time, too, will come.

In Brazil, Sam is taunted by dreams of himself as a mythical warrior in flight, and in combat against hideous but vincible monsters. These dreams of a more heroic and liberated version of himself are the only escape available to him from the oppression that surrounds him.

In The Double, Simon's vision of a more empowered version of himself takes tangible form. Simon is disquieted by the sudden appearance of his cocky doppelganger, whose confidence bordering on ruthlessness allows him quickly to attain more professional and personal success than his ineffectual counterpart. The film becomes increasingly surreal as Simon's tenuously arrayed sense of self collapses into a fully blown existential meltdown.

That Ayoade achieves this without letting slip his deadpan wit is no mean feat.

There is a third film worth mentioning in the same breath as these two. Aesthetically, Ben Stiller's ebullient remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (released this month on DVD) bears little similarity. But there are illuminating parallels that may be drawn.

Stiller's Walter, like Sam and Simon, has grown stagnant. He is beset by soulless corporate rationality; the magazine for which he works is about to be downsized and digitalised. Like Sam, he literally dreams of a braver, more accomplished version of himself, via epic daydreams that are wonderfully realised in the film.

But unlike Sam, Walter is able gradually to become this version of himself, drawn along the path of self-discovery by enigmatic photographer Sean (Sean Penn). In this, the film is unerringly optimistic about the potential of the human spirit.

In contrast, Brazil and The Double are brutally cynical. They proffer nightmare visions in which the human spirit is no match for the corrupt and corrupting power of a society obsessed with productivity and material achievement. Ultimately The Double offers no hope or catharsis to its harried hero.

And nor should it. In a week where we have seen an Australian Budget that gives favour to economic rationalism and the wellbeing of the wealthy, over that of some of our society's most needy and 'ordinary' citizens, Ayoade's cynicism resonates far more powerfully than Stiller's optimism. That is a tragedy.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Terry Gilliam, Richard Ayoade, Brazil, The Double, Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska



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Existing comments

Tim ,thanks for your reviews. I look forward to them and fine tune my choice of film viewing through your filter and commentaries. Do you think that film makers are truly the prophets of the day? The uncanny revelations highlighted in the Double and its gloomy outcomes seem to be being experienced by many people in our country after this unjust and unfair budget. Maybe we are in need of some fifties musical boy meets girl stuff where we just tap along to "Singing in the Rain" and forget about the real world of poverty, homelessness , climate change and political dishonesty .
Celia | 15 May 2014

Dostoyevsky is a fine writer with great insight. Let's hope Australia doesn't have to go through a revolution like Russia in an attempt to equalise the disparities. In my opinion, the Budget is yet another outworking of Australia's God-forsakenness. God hasn't forsaken us. We've forsaken God. Jesus' words resonate well here "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath." Yet another example of rule makers oppressing the ordinary Joe. The people should not be enslaved to the economy but the economy should serve the ordinary Joe especially those who for whatever reason are without a fair go. We are losing our humanity at such a rapid rate to the idol of economic rationalism. Where is the Christian ethic that those who are blessed with wealth have an obligation to strongly support the poor? Forsaken! I pray that Australia awakens to the humanising power of Christ in us, the only hope for a better future for all. Where people are given dignity and respect. Where people are given a budget that strongly supports them to live productive lives.
Deanne Davies | 16 May 2014


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