Dir. Denis Villenueve
French-Canadian Director Denis Villenueve has adapted his curious oddity of a film from the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novel “The Double,” via celebrated Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, who wrote an updated version back in 2005. This triple-filtering, involving three continents and more than 150 years, is strangely appropriate, given the surreal nature of the material.
Essentially, in all three works, a neurotic, slightly unhinged man (in this film played by Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes increasingly obsessed with a mysterious fetch — a doppelganger — he discovers by accident. They eventually meet, take a strong dislike for one another (as mousy and nervous is the one, the other is brassy and overconfident), and eventually start meddling in each others’ lives and their relationships.
On top of Dostoyevsky’s keen eye for human observation, and Saramago’s Latino penchant for mental psychosis, we can also add Villenueve’s bleak world view and proclivity towards moral desolation. The director of last year’s well-overdone Prisoners (also with Gyllenhaal, who apparently can’t get enough French Canadian nihilism in his life), and 2010’s critically lauded Incendies, has visual panache to spare, and here, gets a perplexing puzzle of a story to try and wrap his head around.
Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a distraught adjunct history professor in Toronto, who lives in a drab apartment, meets nightly with his pretty but disaffected girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent), for uninspired sex, and perpetually has a look of worn-out fatigue, constantly rubbing his eyes and massaging his temples as if trying to keep his head from exploding. By chance he rents a recommended video one night, an idiotic farce called “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way,” and is stunned to see an actor who looks exactly like him in a minor role.
Eventually, he tracks down the man, known as Anthony Claire, to his modern, airy apartment (which stands in direct contrast to Adam’s unadorned hovel), and calls his number, only to have Anthony’s pretty blonde wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon) answer, assuming the voice she hears on the phone is her husband’s. The cat-and-mouse game goes on for a while before the men finally meet, peculiarly enough, in a seedy hotel room on the outskirts of town. They take a strong dislike to one another, but before long Anthony, something of a skirt-chaser we are lead to believe, hatches a plan to force Adam into letting him spend the night with Mary on a romantic getaway, and everything comes to an odd head.
The challenge of the film isn’t the solving of the puzzle of the narrative per se — there are certainly clues, but little to suggest a definitive answer one way or the other — but to determine how much of what we’re seeing should be taken at face value. The film takes pains to avoid concrete evidence that the two men are, in fact, the same — going so far as to have Adam walk just out of view after Helen first meets him before calling her husband on the phone — without ever proving that they’re not. Instead, it is Villenueve’s craft that is on full, naked display.
The director has a Lynchian way of stressing his frame just enough to generate a steady buzz of discomfort. Shooting through a filter the color of weak ice tea, the entire film is cast with a layer of grunge, as if dipped in bilge water. The film opens with a particularly unsettling vision of a high-end sex club, where women parade on stage in front of leering older business men, crushing large spiders under their heels. Through use of eerie — often voyeuristic shot selection — unsettling background noise, and a swelling, dissonant score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Villenueve creates a hellish cast to the whole enterprise. As miserable and under pressure as Adam seems to be, none of the other characters, save Anthony, seem terribly much happier either.
At the Toronto Film Festival, where the film made its debut, the buzz was decidedly mixed, but more than one critic who had seen it mentioned the fact that the ending was one of the more shocking surprises they could recall. Generally, given a detail such as that, one can’t help but wonder what the shock might be, and halfway through the film, you start assessing possibilities in the back of your mind. It’s not normally my approach — I’m usually quite happy to let a film surprise me as much as it can — but, in this case, no amount of guessing will lead you anywhere close to the film’s closing seconds. It’s difficult to assess just what it might mean, of course, (frankly, I’m not sure what Dostoyevsky himself might make of it) but I can assure you, it’s not something you are in any danger of conjuring up on your own.