Creepy but beau­ti­ful

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - Evan Wil­liams

The Dou­ble

(M) Limited re­lease

A Cas­tle in Italy

Limited re­lease

MORE than once I’ve seen de­scribed as a com­edy. Well, you could have fooled me. This is the lat­est film from Bri­tish di­rec­tor Richard Ayoade, and there aren’t many laughs. Wikipedia calls a black com­edy, which is nearer the mark. The source is a novella by Fy­o­dor Dos­to­evsky; and as read­ers of Crime and Pun­ish­ment, The Id­iot and The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov will tes­tify, Dos­to­evsky isn’t fa­mous for his sense of hu­mour. It’s true that Ayoade him­self is on record as say­ing that his first thought was to play the story for laughs, but I can only as­sume he changed his mind. The Dou­ble is the most un­set­tling and bril­liantly ac­com­plished jour­ney into a nightmare world that I have seen for a long time.

I wouldn’t call it a hor­ror film. There are no grisly shocks, no mur­ders, no mon­sters, no mu­ti­lated corpses. Ev­ery­thing that fright­ens us ex­ists in the mind of Si­mon (Jesse Eisen­berg), a low-level bu­reau­crat work­ing in some dingy govern­ment depart­ment that could be any­where. One day he en­coun­ters his dou­ble — a per­son who looks ex­actly like him, speaks in the same voice and dresses in the same clothes. And what a great com­edy that would make in the right hands! But Si­mon isn’t sure if he’s dream­ing. As all dream­ers know, dreams are in­dis­tin­guish­able from the real world, at least while they last — which is why film­mak­ers love them. They share the same prop­er­ties of magic and il­lu­sion as the cin­ema.

Early in The Dou­ble, Si­mon has an un­usual en­counter on a train. Doz­ing by him­self in a near-empty car­riage, he’s ap­proached by a stranger who asks him to move to an­other seat: “You’re in my place.” Puz­zled at first, then re­sent­ful, Si­mon reluc­tantly com­plies. We fol­low him to his workplace, where he keeps run­ning into ob­sta­cles, the way we do in dreams: his en­try code is re­jected, se­cu­rity guards treat him with sus­pi­cion, he gets trapped in lifts and caught be­hind slid­ing doors. A half-hour into the film he meets his dou­ble in a wash­room, and this time there’s no mis­tak­ing him. James (also played by Eisen­berg) is ev­ery­thing the timid, fum­bling Si­mon is not — smart, as­sertive, smugly elo­quent and dan­ger­ously skilled in the ways of se­duc­tion. Not only is he a vastly su­pe­rior bu­reau­crat, but he has no trou­ble win­ning the af­fec­tions of Han­nah (Mia Wasikowska), whom Si­mon has loved from afar.

Ayoade’s de­but fea­ture was the re­mark­able Sub­ma­rine (2006), an­other film about a trou­bled young­ster com­ing to terms with a hos­tile world while pin­ing for a dis­tant beloved. Once again, Ayoade keeps us guess­ing. What is Si­mon do­ing in this dis­mal of­fice, staffed by funny old men with dated tech­nol­ogy and bossed by the oddly benev­o­lent Mr Pa­padopou­los (Wal­lace Shawn)? And who is the mys­te­ri­ous “Colonel”? What is this elec­tronic de­vice they talk about — “the most pow­er­ful data-pro­cess­ing sys­tem on the planet”? And whose body has Si­mon seen fall­ing from a high-rise build­ing? Can he be sure of any­thing? Even Han­nah doubts his ex­is­tence (“You’re pretty un­no­tice­able, a bit of a non-per­son”), an im­pres­sion con­firmed by Si­mon’s col­league Har­ris (Noah Tay­lor, in one of sev­eral pleas­ing cameos) who checks his com­puter and an­nounces: “You don’t ex­ist any more, you’re not in the sys­tem.”

The sys­tem! So that’s the root of the trou­ble. But what sys­tem do we mean: the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, the bu­reau­cratic sys­tem? At some point, The Dou­ble be­gins to look like a cri­tique of a reg­i­mented world of docile con­sumers en­slaved by de­hu­man­is­ing tech­nol­ogy. But noth­ing feels heavy or pre­ten­tious. Is James an­other Si­mon or merely the pro­jec­tion of Si­mon’s long­ings, the sort of per­son he dreams of be­ing? I’m not

(MA15+) sure, but Eisen­berg plays the haunted hero to per­fec­tion, and his scenes with Han­nah and his al­ter ego are brought off with sur­pass­ing skill. I won­dered if The Dou­ble wasn’t hint­ing at the kind of men­tal alien­ation fore­shad­owed in The So­cial Net­work, in which Eisen­berg played Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg. Dos­to­evsky would have liked Ayoade’s beau­ti­fully creepy film. Film buffs will love its pro­lific nods and ref­er­ences to David Fincher’s Fight Club, Terry Gil­liam’s Brazil, Ro­man Polan­ski’s The Ten­ant, David Lynch’s Eraser­head, Al­fred Hitch­cock’s Rear Win­dow, to say noth­ing of Ge­orge Or­well and Franz Kafka in their dark­est moods. A com­edy? I don’t think so.

sounds like one of those arty, up­mar­ket come­dies de­signed to ap­peal to English-speak­ing au­di­ences crav­ing sun­shine and scenery and an air of well-bred sex­i­ness in a con­ti­nen­tal set­ting. There was a spate of such films about 10 years ago — Tea with Mus­solini, My House in Um­bria — star­ring the likes of Mag­gie Smith and Judi Dench. What we get here is some­thing closer to farce, a Franco-Ital­ian co-pro­duc­tion flit­ting be­tween Italy and Paris, in which a wealthy fam­ily is forced to con­tem­plate the sale of their coun­try man­sion. Will their beloved cas­tle in Italy be­come a cen­tre for drug ad­dicts, a home for or­phaned chil­dren? Quelle hor­reur!

That’s the start­ing point for this lik­able en­ter­tain­ment, writ­ten and di­rected by Va­le­ria Bruni Tedeschi. But, as it turns out, lit­tle of the film has to do with the sale of the cas­tle. Af­ter los­ing one plot, Bruni Tedeschi de­liv­ers two or

EV­ERY­THING THAT FRIGHT­ENS US EX­ISTS IN THE MIND OF SI­MON

three oth­ers, all com­pet­ing for at­ten­tion. There’s the busi­ness of the young guy dy­ing of AIDS, and of his 40ish sis­ter, Louise, lonely, un­mar­ried and long­ing for a child. There’s the ques­tion of the Brueghel paint­ing, a pre­cious fam­ily heir­loom — will it be sold, too? There are fam­ily con­flicts and ri­val­ries. And there’s the prob­lem of Serge (Xavier Beau­vois), an old friend, now a drunk­ard and in­cor­ri­gi­ble sponger, who turns up to cadge money.

The film is loaded with charm­ingly ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters, hi­lar­i­ous set pieces and seem­ingly ir­rel­e­vant di­gres­sions, which some­how make sense when acted by a first-rate en­sem­ble cast. You won­der af­ter­wards why a film that looks like a hope­less mud­dle should suc­ceed in win­ning us over with its zest and buoy­ancy.

In ad­di­tion to writ­ing and di­rect­ing, Bruni Tedeschi plays our child­less hero­ine, Louise, and at first glance she looks hag­gard, gawky, a bit of an ugly duck­ling. But then, like her lover Nathan (Louis Gar­rel), we are cap­tured by her beauty and poise. Nathan, too, has us fooled for a while. When we meet him he’s driv­ing a car through a rain­storm, tak­ing his hands from the wheel for an oc­ca­sional spell. The cam­era pulls back to re­veal a film set with fake rain and a car mounted on a truck. The shoot over, Nathan heads off along a coun­try lane, where he meets Louise by chance and is hope­lessly smit­ten.

For those who like self-ref­er­en­tial con­nec­tions, it’s worth not­ing that Gar­rel’s fa­ther is a film di­rec­tor in real life, and the film-within-afilm in A Cas­tle in Italy is be­ing di­rected by Nathan’s fic­tional dad (An­dre Wilms). For good mea­sure, Bruni Tedeschi’s real-life mother, Marisa, plays Louise’s mother in the film. They would have loved all this when the film was shown last year in Cannes, the only film in com­pe­ti­tion to be di­rected by a woman.

Louise’s ef­forts to get preg­nant with­out male in­ter­ven­tion make for much amus­ing by­play. En­list­ing the aid of the church, she buys rosary beads from a priest, splashes her tummy with holy wa­ter and hur­ries off to a cathe­dral in Naples, where, it is said, a vir­gin who sits in a cer­tain chair may be im­preg­nated by the Holy Spirit. When such meth­ods prove un­avail­ing, she agrees to an IVF pro­ce­dure us­ing Nathan’s do­nated sperm. The scenes at the IVF clinic are painfully funny. Is Bruni Tedeschi draw­ing a par­al­lel be­tween the fate of Louise’s de­voted brother Lu­dovic (Filippo Timi), who is dy­ing from a sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­ease, and Louise’s ef­forts to give life through ar­ti­fi­cially trans­mit­ted sperm? Prob­a­bly not. But the best farce can move us in strange ways. There’s dark­ness and poignancy in this charm­ingly ir­rev­er­ent es­capade, and I was never sure whether to laugh or cry. It’s all a bit of a dog’s break­fast — but what a friendly, frisky, lov­able dog it is.

Jesse Eisen­berg and Mia Wasikowska in

The Dou­ble;

Noah Tay­lor and Eisen­berg, be­low

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