Creepy but beautiful
(M) Limited release
A Castle in Italy
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
Noah Taylor and Eisenberg, below