RICHARD AYOADE INVOKES THE GHOST OF DOSTOEVSKY
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.”
EVERYONE IS TRYING TO CONNECT TO OTHER PEOPLE DESPERATELY
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