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FY­O­DOR Dos­to­evsky’s novella The Dou­ble has a sim­ple premise but is not such a sim­ple read. Its cir­cuitous lan­guage en­sures the tale — of a man’s spi­ral af­ter a charis­matic and phys­i­cally iden­ti­cal ver­sion of him­self in­vades his world — is al­most im­pen­e­tra­ble.

“Yeah, it’s re­ally hard go­ing,” agrees Richard Ayoade, the man who has trans­formed the book into one of the more in­ven­tive cin­e­matic achieve­ments of the year.

“It’s lit­er­ally on the third or fourth time I read it I felt like I could even fol­low it be­cause it’s in this very strange third per­son (voice) but it feels like it’s also in the first per­son.”

The novel is ar­guably more in­ter­est­ing as an aca­demic ex­er­cise than as an en­ter­tain­ment.

The Dou­ble, which prom­i­nent Dos­to­evsky critic Vladimir Nabokov be­lieved was the Rus­sian’s best work, pre­saged by about 50 years the idea of the Jun­gian shadow, the sub­con­scious side of us, of­ten the neg­a­tive as­pect we don’t wish to ac­knowl­edge. The book also im­i­tated the sur­re­al­ism of his pre­de­ces­sor and mas­ter of Rus­sian lit­er­ary re­al­ism, Nikolai Gogol.

Ayoade’s The Dou­ble has trans­formed it into an en­ter­tain­ment. The di­rec­tor, best known as an ac­tor play­ing the be­spec­ta­cled Mau­rice in Bri­tish sit­com The IT Crowd, notes the book’s im­pen­e­tra­bil­ity was due largely to the lack of any great trans­la­tions un­til re­cently.

“And I think also it was just very in­no­va­tive as a book. That kind of psy­choso­cial realm hadn’t re­ally been dealt with be­fore Dos­to­evsky,” he adds. “Carl Jung said that Dos­to­evsky was the best psy­chi­a­trist he’d ever read.”

In­ter­pre­ta­tions of the book vary be­cause aca­demics and crit­ics ar­gue about the mo­ti­va­tions of its main char­ac­ter, Yakov Petro­vich Golyad­kin. Ayoade is at­tracted to the ac­cepted read­ing of the book, that if a per­son can’t ac­cept their dark side, things they’d rather not show to the world, those as­pects will come out in ex­treme cases.

“You have to ac­knowl­edge that you’re flawed and you have these sort of dark im­pulses,” Ayoade says.

He didn’t plough doggedly through the novel be­liev­ing he would find some­thing worth bring­ing to the screen, though. It came to his at­ten­tion only when he read Avi Korine’s screen­play adap­ta­tion.

He read the book be­fore work­ing on fur­ther drafts of the script with Korine. “So I don’t know if I’d first read the book (whether) I would have nec­es­sar­ily seen what Avi saw in it,” the qui­etly spo­ken and thought­ful Brit says.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble for me to say now be­cause that wasn’t my route there. But I just thought the idea that some­one so lonely and in­vis­i­ble and un­re­mark­able, when their dou­ble ap­pears, no one notices.”

That was such an “amaz­ing idea”, he says, be­cause it is so con­trary to what would nor­mally be done with the idea, par­tic­u­larly on screen.

Ayoade sur­mises “ev­ery­one would no­tice, high jinks would en­sue, it would be a scan­dal, it would be kind of gothic pro­por­tions or the kind of dark se­cret, like Jekyll and Hyde”.

The no­tion no one cares is strik­ing be­cause emo­tion­ally it ac­tu­ally feels right, he says.

“That is how it would pan out for that per­son, no one does care about you in the way you want them to, es­pe­cially in the way, like this char­ac­ter is, he’s too con­cerned about him­self. He’s in his own head.”

Ayoade has crafted an off­beat and mem­o­rable film about isolation and lone­li­ness, which he con­sid­ers “the main con­di­tion of mod­ern life”.

“Ev­ery­one is try­ing to con­nect to other people des­per­ately, to the ex­tent that people are try­ing to do it vir­tu­ally and putting up pre­tend ver­sions of them­selves where they look re­ally cool,” he says.

The So­cial Net­work’s Jesse Eisen­berg plays Si­mon, a wit­less cog in a mys­te­ri­ous bu­reau­cracy who has a long­ing for Han­nah (Mia Wasikowska). The ar­rival of an iden­ti­cal-look­ing new em­ployee, James, sets Si­mon askew un­til the more con­fi­dent out­go­ing em­ployee helps Si­mon at­tempt to woo Han­nah.

The film makes ac­ces­si­ble a dif­fi­cult text and forges its own iden­tity, cre­at­ing a stylish but dif­fer­ent mod­ern world that draws com­par­isons to the off-kil­ter mod­ernism in Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Hud­sucker Proxy and Terry Gil­liam’s Brazil.

In style and am­bi­tion, The Dou­ble is a most pro­gres­sive step from Ayoade’s quirky and amus­ing de­but fea­ture about a Bri­tish teenager’s com­ing of age and match-un­mak­ing, Sub­ma­rine. The di­rec­tor says he wasn’t look­ing for any nat­u­ral­ness. For him, the big­ger ques­tion is “Is it in­ter­est­ing?” rather than “Is it nat­u­ral?”

“For ex­am­ple, in The Shin­ing, that is a non­nat­u­ral­is­tic per­for­mance by Jack Ni­chol­son but it’s cer­tainly a very in­ter­est­ing one,” he says. “And that’s re­ally what you want.

“Nat­u­ral­ism has be­come a sort of go-to, un­think­ing style and some­times it suits things. For ex­am­ple, Spike Jonze ( Where the Wild Things Are, Be­ing John Malkovich) has a great nat­u­ral­ism in his films, which of­ten helps you ac­cept very ex­tra­or­di­nary things, so it works as a re­ally good coun­ter­point to it.”

Then there’s the odd­ness to the nat­u­ral­ism of Hol­ly­wood stars pre­tend­ing to be nor­mal people, he adds.

“I’d rather take Cary Grant, who isn’t nat­u­ral but whose me­ter is so pleas­ing and so con­cise and ev­ery­thing he does has a pur­pose that is great for a nar­ra­tive. You feel more moved by him than some­one who’s able to just to say ‘er’ pe­ri­od­i­cally.”

Ayoade ar­gues one of the com­po­nents of en­joy­ing some­thing is know­ing it has been put on “for you”. The Dou­ble has that, cre­at­ing a world that is ob­vi­ously not real but so en­joy­able to dive into.

James and Si­mon work in a con­tem­po­rary world that per­haps took a veer left in the 1950s. David Crank’s pro­duc­tion de­sign es­tab­lishes “an aber­rant al­ter­nate world”, Ayoade says. “It’s def­i­nitely not a Blade Run­ner fu­ture or any­thing, it’s just a relic.”

It ex­tends to the uniden­ti­fi­able set­ting the di­rec­tor de­scribes as “some kind of in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity”. He al­lows Wasikowska to use her own voice, which is now a “hy­brid Amer­i­can” he likes “be­cause you can’t quite place her”.

And ex­pat Noah Tay­lor fea­tures as a boss with a broader Aussie ac­cent. “It’s al­ways the same thing in films where ev­ery­one has the same voice in the same city but there’s hun­dreds of ac­cents and a chaos to cities,” Ayoade says. “Also, Noah’s voice is great.”


The lack of nat­u­ral­ness in this world, and the du­al­ity of James and Si­mon, es­sen­tially the one per­son with dou­ble char­ac­ters, shad­ows Ayoade’s cre­ative life as per­former and di­rec­tor.

While the for­mer pres­i­dent of the Cam­bridge Foot­lights, breed­ing ground of Monty Python and the Good­ies stars, es­tab­lished a per­sona as a comic per­former on tele­vi­sion, his off­screen work is ar­guably more com­pelling.

He has di­rected mu­sic videos for Bri­tish rock band Kasabian, Amer­i­can rock­ers Vam­pire Weekend and oth­ers, and now he has two dis­tinct, co­he­sive fea­ture films to his name.

He ac­cepts the film’s al­lu­sions to his own cre­ative per­son­al­i­ties.

“Some­thing like this film just uses a very good metaphor for ex­plor­ing it be­cause tra­di­tion­ally you want a pro­tag­o­nist and an an­tag­o­nist, which is how, whether it’s Luke Sky­walker and Darth Vader, ul­ti­mately you find out they’re two sides of the same thing,” says the 36-year-old. “No one’s one thing, I think.”

Ayoade strug­gles with the “in­her­ent strange­ness” in talk­ing about him­self pub­licly.

“Ideally you want to talk to one per­son and for it to feel like it’s a gen­uine ex­change, but there’s a ten­sion in any in­ter­view, the idea that


it’s recorded,” he says. Sim­i­lar to the ten­sion cre­ated in a film take, in which ac­tors pre­tend to be com­pletely in­volved in a scene yet know it is but one piece of film that will be joined to oth­ers to tell a story.

Ayoade re­calls Ira­nian di­rec­tor Ab­bas Kiarostami say­ing he wished he could at­tain the nat­u­ral feel­ing achieved just af­ter the di­rec­tor calls “Cut!” and ev­ery­one starts be­ing nor­mal. “Why can’t you film that?” he asks.

In Eisen­berg and Wasikowska, he has a cou­ple of per­form­ers who in­habit this skewed world well.

Ayoade first no­ticed the Aus­tralian ac­tress in US in­die film The Kids are All Right. “It’s un­be­liev­able how young she is and she’s just so as­sured and al­most like Gena Row­lands or one of those ac­tors who’s just a kind of dif­fer­ent level to ev­ery­one else. She has ev­ery­thing go­ing for her, re­ally, and also just like Gena Row­lands, she has an in­tel­li­gence that is ‘un­ac­tor-able’.

“You can’t pre­tend the in­tel­li­gence.”

The Dou­ble is open na­tion­ally.

Richard Ayoade with Kather­ine Parkin­son and Chris O’Dowd in Bri­tish sit­com The IT Crowd

Jesse Eisen­berg plays a lonely and flawed em­ployee who car­ries a torch for Han­nah (Mia Wasikowska) in

The Dou­ble

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