The Double (2014) is Richard Ayoade’s second feature-length film. Since reading law at Cambridge, where he also served as president of the storied Footlights theatrical club, Ayoade has made a steady ascent, via a stint starring in a beloved sitcom (The IT Crowd), to becoming one of the most promising young directors working in Britain today. Even more impressively, the term “auteur” has begun to be tossed around him, though Ayoade has just two films to his name. And yet, still best known as an actor whose diffident public persona is built on the foundations of his IT Crowd character, Maurice Moss, Ayoade seems to shy from self-aggrandisement. As an authorial presence, his absence is telling, not to say deliberate. However, there are certain thematic concerns threaded through his work that may, in the future, justify the adjective ‘Ayoadian.’
Fittingly, it seems to have become difficult to discuss Ayoade’s second feature film, The Double, without employing a litany of cinephile references, while evoking a veritable who’s who of world cinema. This is partly a result of Ayoade’s own unrestrained, highly literate and self-conscious cinephilia – in interviews, he frequently tosses in casual but considered references to Kaurismäki, Kieślowski, Kubrick, et al – and it’s also the logical evolution of a trend that began with Ayoade’s debut feature, Submarine (2010).
Submarine self-consciously evoked French New Wave cinema but also often provoked comparisons to the more contemporary oeuvre of Wes Anderson, with its highly-controlled mise-en-scene and preoccupation with precocious, pretentious adolescence. Submarine was based on a novel (by Joe Dunthorne), and so The Double is too – Dostoevsky by way of Harmony Korine’s brother, Avi, who shares co-writer credit with the director. The oppressive retro-futuristic milieu Ayoade has conjured for The Double, which superficially seems far-removed from the cozy Welsh environs of Submarine, has frequently drawn comparisons to the dystopian vision of Brazil (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1985).
It’s telling that neither comparison sits well with Ayoade, who prefers to refer to the subjectivity of Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976) when elucidating his approach to both Submarine and The Double, while claiming that Brazil’s aesthetic was only an influence in the negative – something to consciously avoid, however successfully – and that, anyway, he prefers Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998). Less remarked upon, perhaps, is the attention paid to the sound design of The Double, which recalls the immersiveness of David Lynch and Alan Splet’s work on Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch, 1977), in both approach (reportedly five months was spent on the sound alone) and effect.
While refreshingly erudite and generally unafraid to discuss his films in intellectual terms, and with reference to a creditable working knowledge of cinema history, Ayoade seems loathe to be painted a mere stylist – characteristics and preoccupations the director shares with fellow director Quentin Tarantino. Discussing matters of homage, Ayoade has referred to Tarantino’s refutation of his own supposed visual quotation of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), wherein the Kill Bill director argued the perceived homage was simply an aesthetically pleasing shot he could and would have come up with regardless. Ayoade has cited Tarantino as a formative influence as often as Louis Malle and it’s instructive beyond anecdotal that the episode he directed of TV’s Community, ‘Critical Film Studies’, revealed itself to be an homage to My Dinner With Andre (dir. Louis Malle, 1981) superficially disguised as a Pulp Fiction tribute.
As the recent Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2012) blithely incorporated quotes from the likes of Mauvais Sang (dir. Leos Carax, 1985) alongside its more overt nods to the French New Wave, so Ayoade’s films sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly, perhaps even accidentally, evoke the spirit of cinema past, which of course is in some ways eternally the present. But, in a fashion similar to Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze, 2002), the form of which becomes dictated by the concerns of its protagonist, shifting from complex psychology towards a stock action-thriller ending, Ayoade’s films generally and actively derive form from content.
Submarine opens with the voiceover dialogue, “Most people think of themselves as individuals, that there’s no-one on the planet like them. This thought motivates them to get out of bed, eat food and walk around like nothing’s wrong.” The speaker, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), is a precocious adolescent attempting to construct a persona for himself. The mise-en-scene of the film internalises that concern – Submarine’s homage to the films of the French New Wave derives from the subjective perspective the audience shares with the protagonist – to wit, Oliver’s early assignation with love interest Jordana (Yasmin Paige) is played out as a self-conscious homage to Le Samouraï (dir. Jean Pierre Melville, 1967), a poster of which hangs in Oliver’s bedroom.
Throughout Submarine, Oliver’s narration informs the self-reflexive construction of the film, as he conjures a fade to black or imagines the film of his life capturing a key moment with a dramatic crane shot – or, he correctly predicts, with the substitution of a cheaper zoom out. “I find that the only way to get through life is to picture myself in an entirely disconnected reality,” he says, adding, “I often imagine how people would react to my death.” In a brief moment, Oliver conjures a vision of his own doppelganger (dressed as his father), who attempts to drown him in the bath.
That brief moment is exploded in The Double, which immerses its lead in an even more artificial world, reflecting both the fantastical nature of its conceit and the oppressive psychological forces its protagonist, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), labours under. While Oliver presides over his own story, Simon’s constructed persona is externalized, terrorizing him and, by extension, us. His initial lack of agency and his existential dread imply he’s not in control of his own environment. And yet, if we can consider Submarine a lucid dream, where Oliver controls the parameters of his own experience, then The Double is a nightmare, wherein Simon is the director of his own suffering, everywhere and nowhere at once.
Sean Welsh, April 2014
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.