Warning: Spoilers for 2014’s The Double ahead.
Writer-director Richard Ayoade is uncomfortable with comparisons between his new feature, The Double, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and it’s easy to see why: Comparisons between an older film and a newer one are too often used as a weapon against the newer one, as if it were a mortal sin for art to be inspired by, or in any way resemble, other art. As Ayoade said in a recent Dissolve interview, these kinds of comparisons can come across as attacks on a film’s commercial prospects and artistic worthiness, or just a question of whether it’s worth viewers’ time.
So let’s get that out of the way early: The Double is a visually stylish, puckishly creative, well-acted, mesmerizing film. Its story, about an awkward, diffident man displaced by a brazenly assertive doppelgänger, taps into a deep well of common anxiety. It addresses fundamental human insecurities about competence, capability, self-worth, and belonging. Ultimately, protagonist Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) decides he’s worthy of survival, even if his overbearing duplicate (also played by Eisenberg, via seamless effects) thinks otherwise. The film should be in a position to follow suit: Just because it’s Brazil’s younger twin doesn’t make it unworthy.
That said, it’s an awfully familiar movie, and it seems disingenuous—or possibly just a little blinkered—to say otherwise.
The Double is an extremely loose adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name, a hallucinatory narrative about a nervous, paranoid minor functionary—“titular councillor” Yakov Petrovitch Golyadkin—whose doctor urges him to cure his anxiety by getting out socially and drinking more often. Golyadkin’s attempts to obey are disastrous: He repeatedly crashes a birthday party his former patron is throwing for his daughter Klara, and humiliates himself in front of Klara, his patron, and his boss. (This is the disjointed, unlikely stuff of nightmare, lacking only a moment where he realizes he forgot to wear pants to the party.) Shortly afterward, another man with Golyadkin’s name, appearance, and clothing is hired at his office, but the new Golyadkin is obsequious and fawning in a more socially acceptable way, and quickly rises in the ranks. The two men share a brief camaraderie, but when “Golyadkin junior” steals his predecessor’s work, “Golyadkin senior” repeatedly tries to confront him, only to have meaningless, elliptical conversations where he can’t come to grips with his complaint. Eventually, in extremis, Golyadkin breaks down and sees that his “twin” looks nothing like him, and that it was an illusion all along—or that all the people surrounding him are also doppelgängers, laughing at his weakness—and he’s taken away to a mental institution.
Ayoade’s The Double hinges on the same basic idea about a socially awkward minor employee trying to make headway in a sprawling bureaucracy, then being displaced by a more capable, but otherwise eerily identical, version of himself, an illustration of who he might be if he could find the nerve or ease to aggressively pursue the things he wants. But Dostoyevsky’s version, first published in Russia in 1846, feels highly specific to its place and time, and Ayoade’s version shares few direct plot particulars with the novella. Ayoade’s movie feels much more specific to Gilliam’s deliberately time-muddled retro-futurism: In fact, it’s so close to Brazil’s extremely idiosyncratic vision of the future that it feels like it takes place in the same world, ruled by the same indifferently oppressive bureaucracy, and crippled by the same dysfunctional technology.
Brazil begins with a clattering, ancient-looking automatic typewriter malfunctioning (after a dead fly falls into it) and printing out an arrest order that’s one letter off from the intended version, sending an innocent man to his death and kicking the plot into gear. Ayoade’s The Double begins with a clattering, ancient-looking train car malfunctioning and trapping Simon’s briefcase in its doors, leaving him without his papers or backup identity card, and starting his persecution. Like protagonist Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in Brazil, Simon is a peon in a bureaucratic office where the stark lighting and giant, ancient computers with tiny, squint-inducing screens suggest that technological development hasn’t progressed in decades, and aesthetic development stopped even earlier. The two offices might not seem so similar—Brazil’s is an open-plan, blue-gray space, where The Double’s has at least a nod to cubicle walls, even though they’re mostly made of grimy glass that eliminates any conception of privacy. But Ayoade’s camera repeatedly swoops through the space in the same way Gilliam’s does in Brazil, introducing the place as a nightmare of busyness without efficiency, crowding without companionability, and extensive space without individuality or distinction. Like so much in the films, the two offices feel similar without entirely looking alike.
That feeling that the two spaces are more similar than they look also comes from The Double’s Brazil-lian take on technology, which is threatening, inimical, and patched together from outdated hunks of familiar machinery: The controls on a small-scale photocopier look like a 1960s numeric keypad plus an elevator-floor indicator, with thick wires protruding from both. A large-scale photocopier is a weirdly lit nightmare tethered by one of Brazil’s favorite things: clunky, unnecessary ducts.
Both films have a similar take on bureaucracy, both as a convoluted, oppressive mess that makes everyday work feel empty and stultifying, and as a system that actively encourages petty bullying. “What I like about the Dostoevsky story is that it’s more that no one cares,” Ayoade told Film.com about the comparison between Brazil and The Double. “No one’s really persecuting him, there’s no conspiracy, it’s not Big Brother like in Brazil, it’s not 1984, with a slightly more repressive regime, with a malevolent part.” But that’s actually true in Brazil as well. There’s no sense of any organized conspiracy against Sam Lowry, he’s just caught up in an apathetic environment where it’s in everyone’s best interests to pass the buck as much as possible. The belligerent, smug “I’m just doing my job” attitude Sam Lowry gets from HVAC non-repairmen Spoor and Dowser, or that Brazil love interest Jill (Kim Greist) gets from the Information Adjustments functionaries when she’s trying to find the innocent man arrested at the film’s beginning, is the same attitude Simon faces when the security guard at his company won’t let him in without multiple forms of ID, although he’s a seven-year veteran who sees the guard five days a week. The ridiculous confrontation late in The Double where Simon is informed he’s no longer in his workplace’s computer, so he doesn’t exist—he no longer has a badge, so he isn’t in the system; he isn’t in the system, so he can’t get a new badge—is the same obstreperous absurdism that permeates Brazil. The bureaucracy in both movies isn’t about hostility or conspiracy, it’s about willful dysfunction, and the refusal to acknowledge it.
All this is the surface-level similarity that invites knee-jerk, instant comparisons: the dark humor, the cynical despair of people caught in an environment designed to stifle them, the feeling that neither the machines nor the processes work, and that both are cobbled together into a decaying, disintegrating whole. The overall aesthetic feel of the two films—heavily indebted to German Expressionism’s stark lighting and towering edifices—extends the similarity. So do the films’ incongruously upbeat, alienatingly sweet, yet perfectly appropriate soundtracks, which each feel distinctive and removed from of their setting in the same perversely bouncy way.
But in the end, the two films feel so alike because the stories are essentially the same. Both are about shy clerks who are fundamentally competent at their jobs working in a hellish chaos-scape. Both have fraught relationships with overbearing mothers who don’t listen to them. Both have wheedling, nervous bosses who seem fundamentally incompetent at their own jobs. (Sam’s boss appreciates him, while Simon’s boss overlooks him, though both films have similar comedically desperate scenes of people chasing a superior through the office, shouting and waving papers and trying to gain their attention, which just seems to be part of the accepted process.) Both men have white-haired, distant, grandfatherly figures they look to for help and salvation, which ultimately isn’t forthcoming, because the grandfather-figures don’t have the personal investment the protagonists were hoping for. Both Sam and Simon have distant but dependent relationships with pop culture, as an escapist tool and a safety valve in emotionally uncomfortable situations. A Brazil scene where Sam looks to a cheap TV show for relief from a painful confrontation with a widow even has a direct parallel in a Double scene where Simon looks to an equally cheap TV show for relief from an embarrassingly awkward date. There’s even the same sense that both men are floundering in front of an eternally present, eternally judgmental audience: They both live in a panopticon populated by observers who might be frightening, if there was any sense that they cared about what they’re watching.
Both men are obsessed with a pale, blonde fantasy figure of a woman, someone they know nothing about as a person, but have fixated on as a catalyst for all their personal hopes. Sam first sees Jill in his dreams, then is astonished to meet her in real life; Simon’s obsession, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) is a co-worker he can’t bring himself to speak to. But while Simon spies on Hannah from the building across the street, and plucks souvenirs of her life from the giant Brazil-esque ducts that convey her trash to the basement, while Sam just envisions her as a helpless goddess in need of rescue, they both see their women more as ideals than people.
Even their attempts to make contact with those ideals follow similar courses. Both men keep ending up on the wrong side of uncooperative elevator doors when trying to approach their love objects. Both are hopelessly awkward and needy when they finally initiate contact. Both get summarily, definitively rejected, though Sam is shot down on their first meeting, while Hannah takes a little time to get to know Simon before she decides she hates him. And then both women, when left in isolation to contemplate their flawed white knights, change their minds not because of the protagonists’ presence, but by pondering their deeds in their absence. (And frankly, in both cases, the turnaround seems unearned, marking the women as the kind of fantasy-figures whose affections can be bought with favors performed by men they don’t particularly like.)
And throughout the films, both men follow similar paths, from meek round peg in a round hole to wild-eyed crusader that can’t fit in anywhere. Sam frequently fantasizes about being a sword-wielding hero, but eventually transforms that fantasy courage into reality—to the degree the word “reality” pertains to anything in Brazil—and fights the system to rescue Jill from the results of her own crusading. Simon starts out barely capable of looking people in the eyes, but the need to reclaim his life from his far more confident and contemptuous doppelgänger James drives him to extremes he never thought possible.
There are further weird parallels. Both films climax with the agitated, harried protagonist showing up late to a funeral in progress, then symbolically dying—Sam falls into the coffin, Simon falls into the grave—and re-emerging. Both stories get a conceptual boost from the idea of a character being erased from the system, which leaves them free of all the petty encumbrances and responsibilities that limit everyone else, even their oppressors. And while Brazil closes with Sam’s insanity, while The Double ends with Simon arguably finally reaching sanity, both endings still have a similar tone, with the protagonists physically broken and bleeding after an immense self-sacrifice that still leaves them strangely triumphant. In raw plot details, Simon in The Double has far more in common with Sam in Brazil than with his Russian counterpart in Dostoyevsky’s book.
In spite of Ayoade’s concerns about commercial or aesthetic accusations, none of this obviates The Double as an experience worth having, or a film worth watching. Eisenberg’s performance alone would make The Double immersive: Given the opportunity to play his two most common types, the hapless flailer and the caustic schemer, against each other, he plays both roles to the hilt. The Double is beautifully shot, with a fantastic eye toward stark, hidden light sources and searingly vivid color. The music serves a similar conceptual function to Brazil’s, but it’s nothing like it in form or execution: It’s thrillingly weird and lovely.
Besides, it would be ridiculous to dismiss The Double because of its similarities to other art, given its provenance as part of a long, unbroken line of stories that owe fealty to each other. Brazil itself owes a considerable debt to George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s novel, in turn, follows in the footsteps of The Trial, Franz Kafka’s classic novel about paranoia, oppression, and injustice—which was heavily influenced by Dostoyevsky’s writing a generation earlier. For that matter, Dostoyevsky’s The Double was initially dismissed as a secondhand riff on various stories by Nikolai Gogol before him—and it’s since been analyzed as a parody of, or response to, or version of, Gogol’s short stories “The Overcoat” or “The Nose.” Gogol himself was mentored by, and heavily influenced by, Aleksandr Pushkin, in his subject matter and style. Circling back, Ayoade’s The Double has a considerable resemblance to Orson Welles’ The Trial, in terms of its stark compositions and its sense of perverted justice and nightmarish illogic. But Welles’ film, for its part, was heavily influenced by the film noir of the 1940s and the German Expressionism of the 1920s and 1930s. “You stand on dead men’s legs,” Wolf Larsen sneers in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, abusing the narrator for relying on his father’s inheritance. “You’ve never had any of your own.” But that’s the way of art: It follows a chain of inspiration down through the years.
It never hurts to consider a film’s influences; that’s one of the most useful things critics can do, in terms of tracking movements and concepts back to their sources, and helping further the audience’s understanding of where individual films come from. For all his reluctance over the Brazil comparison, Ayoade has acknowledged other inspirations, including The Wrong Man and Le Samourai. Critics, meanwhile, have noted plot points or tonal details from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, David Fincher’s Fight Club, and from other filmmakers, from David Lynch to Aki Kaurismäki. And none of these empties the film of value, as long as it has its own sense of creativity, energy, and worth.
In Brazil, Sam has a moment in one of his dreams that The Double’s Simon would recognize: He defeats the samurai he’s been fighting for so long, then sees the thing’s dead face under its armor, and realizes it’s his own. He’s fighting his doppelgänger: The monster he’s been up against was himself all along. Acknowledging the resemblance lets him move on to the next dangerous stage in his development as a hero. In the same way, Simon hates and fears James, but has to acknowledge that his double functions equally well as a promise and a warning of what he might become if he found his own courage. He has to become his own evil twin to free himself. But learning from James lets him function, persevere, and emerge not just victorious, but better armed for the world he lives in. Both men learn from their confrontations with their mirror images. There’s no shame in The Double doing the same.