Richard Ayoade’s The Double: Film Review and Q&A Excerpts from the BFI Preview Screening

A clever new film has hit the cinemas this weekend and I was lucky enough to see the preview screening of The Double at the BFI earlier in the week. After the screening of this intelligent dark comedy, director Richard Ayoade joined the audience for a brilliant Q&A that was absolutely hilarious. I was impressed with Ayoade’s repartee and wanted more than anything to share his witty remarks with my audience although I am well aware that a written account of this won’t do his humour any justice. I won’t give away any spoilers as I think everybody should go see this film for themselves. (I will actually go see the film at least one more time in the cinema as I am sure I will discover more surprising elements per viewing and hopefully unravel the actual plot.)

Here’s the intriguing trailer for the film, just in case you have no idea what I’m talking about.

The two main characters of the film are played by Jessie Eisenberg. Before this film my opinion of Jessie Eisenberg was that he’s one of those ‘typical’ Hollywood actors of whom you know they play their role well, but aren’t especially outstanding. With this film, however I stand corrected. Jessie Eisenberg is absolutely brilliant in his roles of Simon James – who takes a fatalistic approach to life – and of his evil and manipulative doppelganger James Simon.

The life of Simon James is simple: he goes to work every day to crunch data of some sort and fantasises about a girl in his office who also happens to live in the apartment building opposite his. He comes across as a docile labourer who might have some sense of ambition in life, but absolutely has no drive to fulfil his dreams. He’s invisible to the world, has no friends and even the people he has seen in the office every day for seven years already don’t really take notice of him. The quote from his boss Mr Papadopoulos (played by Wallace Shawn) in the trailer perfectly illustrates how people see Simon James and what his accommodating response to them is. Mr Papadopoulus: ‘How long you have been here? You only just started here, right?’ Simon James: ‘Yes sir, only seven years.’

In the beginning of the film, Simon James loses his briefcase on the train which has his ID badge for work in it. Although the porter sees him every day and knows who he is, from now on Simon has to fill in a visitor’s form every morning to gain access to his office. This is just the first step in Simon’s descent into his loss of identity which accelerates from the day James Simon suddenly enters the office. He is the identical doppelganger of Simon James, but no-one, except for Simon James (who swoons upon the sight of James Simon), notices any resemblance between the two. From the start James Simon is popular in the office and even Simon James’ love interest, Hannah (played by Mia Wasikowska), is very much charmed by this interesting and energetic new guy. While Simon James tries to protest against James Simon’s manipulating acts, he never picks up the courage to stand up against James and just complies to his every demand.

Left: Simon watches Hannah from his apartment opposite hers. Right: Hannah, the girl Simon is in love with.

Throughout the film you keep wondering about who James Simon actually is. I haven’t figured this out yet and therefore want to see the film at least one more time. I’m also considering to read the novella by Dostoevsky upon which this film is based.

Is James merely a projection of Simon and has he created a version of himself of how he’d rather be? Do the two individual characters merely exist in Simon James’ mind? Or does James Simon actually exist and is he a fraud who is slowly trying to steal Simon’s identity? Watching the film, snippets of many other films playing on these themes passed my mind, such as the brilliant films (some of my favourite films) Fight Club (1999) and Adaptation. (2002) and even (the slightly less brilliant film) The Net (1995). (Editorial note, 27 September 2014: I have recently watched Enemy, which is an ingenious film and surprisingly hadn’t had much press, even though it has Jake Gyllenhaal starring in it in a double roll. I recommend watching this film in addition to The Double as the essence of the story is similar in the beginning and might help you deconstruct the meaning of both films.)

The characters of Simon James and James Simon struck me as the depiction of the philosophical and literary concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysus (over 10 years ago when I was still a nerdy student I wrote my first MA thesis on the figure of Dionysus in (neo) Hellenistic literature and philosophy). For the clarification of these archetypes, I will quote from the all-mighty Wikipedia: ‘Apollo is the god of the Sun, of dreams and of reason, while Dionysus is the god of wine, ecstasy and intoxication.’ In this sense, Simon James clearly portrays Apollo while his antagonist is Dionysus.

The staging of the film has a very artificial feel to it. The many quirky characters and fast-paced dialogues (for instance the scene with two detectives who are investigating a man’s suicide) had some Wes Anderson resonance to them. Like with many of Wes Anderson films, it’s rather difficult to place The Double in a specific time or location. The film mostly seems to be set in a fantasy world in a time that could be any. Devices used in The Double, like the TV sets, computer systems and especially the extraordinary printer, seem to be both from the future but at the same time look very out-dated.


During the Q&A Richard elaborated on the aspects of location and time in the film: ‘We didn’t want it to be placed precisely as just one kind place in Britain and also like the technology that exists in it and the specific set dressing isn’t of one era that necessarily existed. We wanted it more to feel like one of those generic science programmes that you had in the 50s in which they would say in the year ‘99 everybody will look like this and it’s just off.’

Frequently you hear Japanese and South Korean songs in the films, Ayoade on this: ‘Since there is a variety of accents in the film and the location is not exactly determined as one place, it would be good if the music wasn’t geographically or temporarily limited. And you can speak over Japanese music with English without too much dissonance as with Kanye West, which was second choice.’

Richard revealed that the filming had taken place in Wokingham, UK. In reply to the question if the people in Wokingham had seen the film yet, he said: ‘The citizens of Wokingham, as they insist on being called, they more or less watch it daily. It’s too early to call it a religion yet.’

More was explained about the use of music and sound in the film when someone in the audience asked after the sound design as there are many moments when you hear industrial rumbling and fake screams. ‘I think part of it was not wanting to have the sound and picture to be in sync. And to have an emotional feel rather than descriptive, I guess. I think part of the appeal of foreign films, especially from the 60s like Fellini films or Bergman films, you have this quite simple soundtrack that isn’t often exact in time with the picture and they take a more broad idea-based approach.’

During the Q&A I realised that the artificial feel to the film was the result of the lack of natural light. Richard explained that decision: ‘There was a very practical reason for not having any natural light in the film. Initially a very boring reason which is that we were to have motion control or split screen in the film and you can’t have any change in luminance in between two takes then. So in order to be in control of the light, you can’t have natural light. And also in just in some nightmarish way it felt like it would always be good to have some artificial component to the light. In the film before (Submarine, 2010) it was more or less all natural light so in this we were really happy to work with all hard light, old film lights. … You just kind of shape it, like you would do in a film noir. And don’t really worry about the logic of it.’

Richard Ayoade on the biggest challenge during filming: ‘Technically the hardest thing was that it was really slow. In the scenes with the two of them there [Simon James and James Simon]. Normally you can rehearse a scene and see whether it’s too long or how everybody’s interacting, but now you couldn’t really see this till the edit and that is rather strange. Also you have to film each scene at a minimum of three takes. A further slightly frightening thing is that you have to take one take on the day for him [Jessie Eisenberg] to act against. You don’t really have the chance to say: “Oh I’ll take it from here.”’

Noah Taylor
Noah Taylor and Jessie Eisenberg in a scene from The Double.

In the film you see parts of the fictional TV series The Replicator. Does this refer to James Simon and that he is mere replica of Simon James? In my opinion he is not a replica as he is rather more the opposite. Someone in the audience asked Richard Ayoade if there’s a chance of a full-length version of The Replica. Richard: ‘I don’t know. Those kinds of things are always quite easy to do in short bursts in a way because you only have to do title sequences and those are fun to do. But as soon you get past the reality of such things, they are quite boring.’

On a more serious note, a question about the element of societal critique. Audience member: ‘I realised that the film seems to bear a striking stylistic resemblance to the film version of 1984. I was wondering if the film is perhaps a statement saying that society is almost a trap to people?’ Richard: ‘I haven’t seen that film. I think in books like 1984 and A Brave New World there’s a societal critique in them. But in the Dostoevsky one it feels like the critique is more personal and existential. More about someone’s buying into it themselves rather than how they are crushed by something without. To me the Dostoevsky book feels more like Kafka, which doesn’t seem broadly particularly critical of the legal system. It’s more a representation of what you fear about yourself if you would get into contact with something like that and how you would crumble. It’s kind of a manifestation of your own weakness, that seemed more interesting to me.’

Also a question about the difference between the book by Dostoevsky and the film: Audience member: ‘The film felt strangely hopeful whereas the book is rather less so if I read it correctly. Is that something you set out from the start or did that come through the writing process that you felt that with a film it should leave people feeling a bit better about themselves?’ Richard: ‘The book is strange. It is odd, quite hard to follow and written in the third person. I don’t know what the literary term is, but quite an intimate third person. It changes location without any warning, just hard to follow and it does feel like a descent into madland. It felt for us that it would be good to have the character that Mia plays in the film, primarily because in the book the main preoccupation of the main character is his embarrassment at work and how he’s been humiliated and overlooked. And it just felt like some concern about 19th century Russian classicism* and not what it would do at the box office. [laughter in the audience] It did feel that someone’s concern for his job what odd, it didn’t seem that important as in terms of self-definition as a relationship with someone else.’

To finish off this article, let me share some of the funny answers Richard Ayoade gave during the Q&A. Bear in mind that he gave them in a very dry way and delivered them in such a brilliant manner. I hope you will enjoy these quotes as I enjoyed them hearing them live.

Q: I wanted to ask you about a couple of casting decisions. The first of them is Jessie Eisenberg and the second one Wallace Shawn. To start with whichever makes you feel more comfortable.
A: I’m equally comfortable with either one. I don’t want the order that I answer to be an index of discomfort.

Q: It is a big cast and there are other directors…
A: There are other directors. Who are those people?
Q: …with an acting background who may have given themself a cameo. Was that ever an idea for you?
A: The good thing about me is that there is always someone better. That is just something you can rely on. I mean, so many people would have to be ill. I mean like… everyone!

Q: Having now done two features…
A: Is it too early for a retrospective?

Q: Can you sum up your directorial approach? Tyrannical?
A: I can’t really sum it up in one word.
Q: Or two.
A: Well you know, I attend… And I am punctual. I tend to push people for desserts a lot. Looking back on that I regret it. I wouldn’t do that anymore now.

Q: If someone would tell you tomorrow ‘you can make any film you want and budget is not a problem’ what one film would you make, other than the ones you already made?
A: I guess a cheap film and keep all the money. Then I’d be retired, who cares?

Richard & Richard
Richard & Richard at The Double Q&A, photo by Jacopo Miceli

*I couldn’t hear this word clearly during the Q&A and am not sure if this is the term Ayoade actually mentioned.

Have you seen the film and/or read the book? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the story so please feel free to leave a comment here!

6 thoughts on “Richard Ayoade’s The Double: Film Review and Q&A Excerpts from the BFI Preview Screening

  1. The Double was a movie that definitely stayed in my mind. I came up with an idea of what I think could be going on. I ended up re-watching the movie and writing a pretty in-depth article about it. I tried to answer a few of the questions people might have. Especially to explain if James exists and what might be real or not in the movie.

    The Double Movie Explained: What Was It About?

    – What Do I Think?
    – What Do I Know For Sure?
    – Is James Real?
    – Are The Scenes Real?
    – What Might Not Be Real?
    – What Is The Opening Plot?
    – What Is Just In Simon’s Head?
    – What Is Really Going On In Real Life?
    – When And Why Does Simon Become James?
    – Why Do We See Both Simon And James?
    – How Does Simon Become James?
    – What Would James Do?
    – Does He Choose Simon or James?

    1. Thanks for leaving your comment and adding the link to your own article. If I read it correctly, it sounds like your Simon/James persona resembles the Tyler Durden issue in The Fight Club. That was also my reading of The Double actually. Thanks for the elaborate explanation!

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