With a double dose of Jake Gyllenhaal currently doing the rounds, David O’Donoghue takes a look at the doppelganger, and how it functions, in film.
Enemy, the Doppelganger thriller by Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve, was released in Irish cinemas after a sensational reception on the festival scene. Although Enemy was made before Villeneuve directed the smash hit Prisoners, which also starred Jake Gyllenhaal, it is only being released now. For those worrying that Enemy might therefore seem like a step backward from Villeneuve’s thrillingly dark 2013 hit, they needn’t worry. Although this debut shares many traits with its successor (an exploration of the darkness in man, gloomy environments and able cinematography) it seems, in my mind anyway, to be the tighter and more focused film, sure to offer great joy to anyone who enjoyed Prisoners.
Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a university professor who, by a chance conversation, discovers that his exact double is a semi-successful actor. This jarring discovery leads to several confrontations with the doppelganger that will play havoc with both men’s minds and lives. The film is stylistically hypnotic, with all the dull browns and greys of Toronto’s brutalist architecture mixing with the almost sepia filter to create an atmosphere weary and stifling enough to reflect the tired lectures on ideology and history that Adam delivers each day. The arachnid imagery peppered throughout, from a surreal opening sequence to the frosted glass spider web of a car window, is haunting and entrancing, drawing the viewer into the mystery in a way that almost echoes David Lynch. You don’t quite understand, much like Adam, and that’s precisely why you want to.
Anthony, Gyllenhaal’s actor doppelganger, compounds this theme of mystery with both the nature of his profession and the stage name he hides under. An atmosphere of confusion and disorientation pervades the film. This is not a neat, stylistically smooth David Fincher type thriller-mystery, where half the pleasure is in seeing the mystery unfold itself logically as it is solved. There is little resolution here, only an endless tumble into a sandblasted dream where all notions of individual identity begin to dissolve.
Enemy is not the only mysterious thriller to use the Doppelganger theme in recent times. 2013’s The Double saw IT Crowd favourite Richard Ayoade set up a meeting between two Jesse Eisenbergs. While that might sound, especially from Eisenberg’s recent roles, as though it would descend into a cosmic singularity of condescending snark, Ayoade and Eisenberg did something interesting with the roles. The characters, Simon James and James Simon, are a neat bifurcation of the roles that Eisenberg has become most known for inhabiting. Simon, our protagonist, is a timid, socially awkward ghost of a man whereas James, a recent hire in Simon’s dystopian place of work, is an obnoxious, sarcastic womaniser.
Their relationship is complicated, resembling the bizarre and convoluted aesthetic of the film itself, where Simon slaves away at clunking machines resembling the unwieldy early computers of the 1980s in a world that can only be described as retro futuristic in a way that greatly echoes Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Simon’s first reaction to his double is to faint with shock; soon followed by incredulousness at how no one seems to see the resemblance between the two men. But as the slight and shy young man watches his counterpart cavort and charm all around him, he begins to poke his head out from his oversized suit, which he shrinks into like a turtle, and pay attention. The two form an uneasy pact, where shy Simon completes the work assignments that James has little aptitude for and outgoing James informs Simon of how he can charm the distant Hannah, played by the lovely, fey-looking Mia Wasikowska.
This goes exactly how you might expect and soon the uneasy alliance sees James to the top of the work ladder and into Hannah’s heart, and the beds of many other women. From this point onwards James’ menacing, charming glow seems to leave Simon in the shadows.
Both of these films are based on iconic works of Doppelganger fiction. Enemy takes its rough outline from the book by Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, The Double, while the two Eisenbergs trade blows in an adaptation of a Dostoevsky novel of the same name. Even before Dostoevsky popularised it the Doppelganger was a persistent feature of both mythology and literature, most notably appearing in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story William Wilson. But film has presented rich new opportunities to explore this classic archetype. It’s one thing to read about characters who resemble one another perfectly, quite another thing to watch the difficult task (especially in the early days of film) of mirroring an actor contribute further excitement and tension to the conflict between these mirror images.
Ultimately these recent Doppelganger stories, although sleek and stylish and modern, are at their heart covering the same theme as so many other Doppelganger stories: the divided self.
The two Gyllenhaals and the two Eisenbergs are almost caricatures of the classic introverted and extroverted types. One Gyllenhaal is a quiet history professor who doesn’t get out much, where the other is an actor, a man whose whole profession is to project himself out into the world bravely and whole-heartedly. The possession of these two traits by the two Eisenbergs shouldn’t need elaboration.
These two films allow for a fascinating and mysterious conflict between these two types, both of which dwell in all of us to a lesser or greater extent. The introverts watch quietly, like Simon in a claustrophobic train, as the extroverts seem to summon the whole world to their fingertips with a confident grin and a wink. Meanwhile, there is a less overt exchange of desire on the part of the extroverted self. It is soon revealed that James has been seducing the beautiful Hannah with sincere and affectionate words that shy Simon had revealed to him in confidence. This reflects how our extroverted part often longs for the observant sincerity that doesn’t quite come with all the flash and fireworks of extroversion.
This essential, claustrophobic conflict between two essential components of identity is what makes the Doppelganger trope such an enduring one. It asks us, what if we could distil these distinct parts of ourselves into their purest form and put them in a room together. What would be the outcome of their tussle? What would they think of one another?
And what identity would emerge from the debris?