Doubles and doppelgängers on page and screenPosted: September 13, 2014
Did you ever think you might have a double, someone identical to you but unrelated? A doppelgänger, that is, or “double goer” in German, a lookalike or alternate self. The term has ominous portents in some traditions and the concept has appeared in various cultural forms many times over the centuries.
Two current films, both based on novels, explore the idea of the double or doppelgänger. They are both fascinating films and generated a great discussion at a film group meeting this week. (These films are available on DVD or streaming on Amazon Instant Video or Netflix.)
The films and the books from which they are adapted are:
Enemy directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, adapted from The Double, the 2002 novel by Jose Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, who died in 2010. (The original title translates as The Duplicated Man.)
The Double directed by Richard Ayaode and starring Jesse Eisenberg, adapted from the 1846 novella, The Double, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Both films stand on their own as distinctive works of art. There’s no need to read the books to appreciate them. But both books are excellent and well worth reading. The Saramago book is one of his best.
Both films tell the story of men who suddenly discover that another person looks and sounds exactly like him. The double seems to be trying to take over his life, or is he really? They raise questions of duality and identity, of psychic bifurcation. They follow the general plot lines of the original novels fairly closely but the endings vary dramatically.
Enemy is set in a contemporary but dystopic-looking Toronto. Skyline scans are tinted a murky sepia tone; Brutalist concrete architecture is featured; spiders and their webs are a recurring theme. (Note: there are no spiders in the Saramago book.) Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a college history professor who we see teaching about dictatorships and totalarianism. By chance he sees an actor who looks exactly like him on a DVD he’s watching. He researches the actor and finds out his name and address from a production company. When he goes to the actor’s agency to find out more about him, the security guard thinks he’s the actor. When he calls the actor’s home, his wife mistakes Adam’s voice for her husband’s.
Now believing that he really has a double, Adam contacts Anthony; eventually they get together and discover they are identical, even to scars, moles and birthdays. I will not tell you the rest of the plot, but Anthony and Adam’s girlfriend are killed in a car accident. It may be that Adam will take over Anthony’s life, or at least his wife invites him to do that. The film has a scary and bizarre ending. The book’s ending, in which a third double phones Adam to request a meeting, was also quite intriguing.
In The Double, Jesse Eisenberg is Simon James, a minor functionary in a government bureaucracy set in an indeterminate time and place. The locations and exteriors are Kafkaesque, and seem to be in an industrial European city. Office and computer equipment looks like it’s from the 1950s or ‘60s. One day a new employee joins the department and the director, played by Wallace Shawn, thinks he will be the best employee ever. His name is James Simon and he is identical to Simon James, which no one else seems to notice. James, however, is brash and charismatic, whereas Simon is timid and bumbling. (Mood, setting, plot and characters follow the Dostoyevsky story closely.)
Although Simon befriends James, the latter gradually takes over Simon’s life, his job, his love interest (Mia Wasikowska), even his apartment. The ending suggests that James is Simon’s alternate self, and he has to dispose of him. The film’s ending is somewhat ambiguous and different from Dostoyevsky’s more defined ending.
Both films are well done; I would rate both as three stars out of four. Both Gyllenhaal and Eisenberg do excellent jobs of being the same person, but not quite. They do appear together in the same scenes but usually not together in the same scene with a third person. The film group had a spirited argument about self and identity and whether Adam/Anthony and Simon/James were “one bifurcated psyche,” as Gyllenhaal says in an interview. (I agreed about Simon/James but not about Adam/Anthony. I chose to suspend disbelief and accept that there could be an exact duplicate or doppelgänger.)
Film group members suggested other fine movies that deal with duality/identity/doubles, such as Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman, 2002), Mullholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), and The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991). In a 2013 film, The Face Of Love (Arle Posin), a widow falls in love with a man who seems to be her late husband’s double.
There have been several articles recently on the current interest in doubles or doppelgängers. I particularly like this quote from a Slate article: “Any story constructed around the theme of the double—one of the most ancient in literature, which plays on the human fascination with identity and belonging, repetition and uniqueness—lives and dies by its ending.” Here we have four works of art, two on page and two on screen, and four endings.
Saramago’s novel and Villeneuve’s film open with this statement:
“Chaos is order waiting to be deciphered.”
After seeing both films and rereading both books, I would say chaos still waits to be deciphered. And that’s what makes life intriguing. There’s a surprise around every corner.
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