Sunday, April 30, 2017

2013, year of the doppelganger (on Ayoade's The Double & Villeneuve's Enemy)

2013 was a big year for doppelgangers. I had to check IMDB to confirm, but I shouldn't have bothered, the memory is so vivid: seeing previews at indie features, and noticing that there were two movies arriving at the same time, both in a dark eccentric style, and both about protagonists meeting shadow versions of themselves.

I finally got around to seeing both of them this year. 2017 is looking to be a great year for discovering movies.

In case you missed either of them: the first was Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Denis Villeneuve. You might recognize that name... in the past year, the guy really leveled up, directing excellent film and worldwide award magnet The Arrival. The other was The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg and directed by Richard Ayoade.

Enemy was an excellent, stirring film, partly because it was so focused and compact. It had the feel of Christopher Nolan's earlier films, but with richer tactile qualities, sort of inky and jaundiced. In a sense, its narrative purity was also its weakness: it felt so focused that it became irrelevant. It was essentially a study of itself, blind to the world that we were watching it from.

The Double, on its surface, wasn't much different. It took place in an absurdist fantasy world with strong Terry Gilliam influences, and it was tricky and ominous, but relatively predictable (the twists weren't very twisty, and those moments that were surprising weren't very relevant to the plot as a whole). However, these criticisms are minor quibbles when the whole product is taken into account, and I think, though it was less pure and technically artful, The Double was heartier than Enemy, and had more to say to its audience.

The key problematic in The Double was Simon's insecurity, and the film was intensely attentive to this. Simon was a sad character, perhaps too much of a caricature to be relatable, except for the fact that he embodies every neurotic insecurity and inferiority complex looming over our psychological bubbles. James was a brilliant foil, a manifestation of Simon's fantasy of dominance and aggression and confidence, and he captured both the thrill of that construct, and its terrible price: the inauthenticity, the opportunism, the misplaced priorities, the lack of consideration or compassion.

Simon having to face James as a sort of shadow perfection: that made for a powerful film, and at least for me, a compelling comment on how fantasy and reality run in parallel.

It brings larger questions to bear: at what point in our lives should we let go of the aspirational version of ourselves? At what point does a fantasy of self-possession, of personal success and validation, become an anchor rather than a buoy? Can we keep aspiring and striving, if we don't have some sort of perfect projection we're following... our own inadequacy, reconstructed as a guide to a better version of ourselves?

I started reading Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet recently -- you may have run across it in my other recent entries -- and this fits firmly within this entry's thematic, as well. Pessoa's distinguishing characteristic was that he wrote under multiple personas, all refracting his own personality in various ways. These all had their own histories and identities and concerns, but their writing (through Pessoa) was always rich and earnest and fully realized. Pessoa's subjects included inadequacy and incompleteness, the existential gaps at the heart of human identity. His writing might have been a balm for Simon.

This has been a relatively unfocused entry, and I hope you'll forgive it. Maybe I'll have more thoughts on 2013, the year of the doppelganger, and I'll write a second, more idealized post as a sort of twinner to this one.