The Best of You, the Worst of You: The Year of the Doppelganger in Film

NOTE: Spoilers abound.

2014 is a little more than half over and already several cinematic trends have surfaced: the continued dominance of superheroes at the box office; Scarlett Johansson’s uncontested reign of hotness; the continuing Michael Bay pillaging of Saturday mornings of yesteryear. But most intriguing might be the mini-boom of doppelganger movies that have appeared, dare I say it, like unexplained copies of one another in the past few months: Enemy, from Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve; The Double, from ex-IT Crowd star and budding auteur Richard Ayoade; and The One I Love, from first-time filmmaker Charlie McDowell. Each of these three films uses the concept as a jumping off point to tell a unique story. But why the sudden interest in stories about unexplained doubles? What does it say about the anxieties of identity in the new millennium — the way we see ourselves? A deeper examination of each entry in this year of doppelganger in film might provide some answers.

Enemy

Enemy, based on the novel The Double by Jose Saramago, first introduces Jake Gyllenhaal as sad sack history professor Adam, who lives in a jaundiced, oppressive version of Toronto, giving repetitive lectures on totalitarianism and settling into a routine of Chinese takeout and dutiful sex with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent). After a co-worker recommends he rent a film, Adam notices a bit player, also played by Gyllenhaal, who looks identical to himself. Further investigation reveals that this local actor, named Anthony, is his exact double. Anthony has an apartment on the other side of town and a wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), who is six months pregnant. Adam decides to make contact with his doppelganger and the plot spins out from there as the two begin a charged, increasingly dangerous dance, eventually swapping partners and, it seems, lives.

I say “seems” because Villeneuve’s film is not straightforward about what exactly it is depicting, preferring an elliptical dream world akin to Lynch’s Mullholland Dr. to anything resembling a logical narrative. Though Gyllenhaal does a masterful job of differentiating between the two men, the line between what is real and imagined is harder to parse. Highly symbolic imagery permeates the film, in particular a recurrent spider motif that suggests a web forming around the protagonists. But who is doing the building and who is being entrapped? Who is real and who is the construct of an unraveling man?

Though there are many potential ways to interpret the film, Enemy seems best read, to me, as an exploration of infidelity, a betrayal that requires not only deception but invention, of places to be that don’t exist and a personality that must be donned and shed with different partners. Thus the film itself becomes a feature-length justification by an adulterer to the audience, as Adam struggles to rationalize his unfaithfulness to his actual wife, Helen, with his mistress Mary by fabricating his own scapegoat, Anthony, to pin the blame on. But even in fantasies old habits die hard and as Adam threatens to devolve back into sexual disloyalty Enemy ends with one of the most startling images I’ve seen in some time. Without giving too much away, those who are particularly arachnid-averse would be advised to step out of the room for the last thirty seconds of the film or risk many sleepless nights.

The One I Love

Like Enemy, The One I Love also uses the doppelganger theme to explore relationships and their inherent difficulties, albeit to different ends. The film stars Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass as Sophie and Ethan, a couple hoping to resuscitate their dying marriage with a long weekend at a country house at the suggestion of their therapist. Eagle-eyed viewers of the opening montage with the therapist (played by Ted Danson, the only other actor who appears) will notice that the characters change outfits between cuts, a sly nod to the eventual twists the film will take. Once at the house, the couple attempts to reignite the flame, which truly sparks once Sophie wanders to a guesthouse in the back of the property and finds Ethan, acting sweeter and friskier than he has before. The two have sex but when Sophie returns to the main house and finds Ethan sleeping, he denies the incident ever occurred. Once Ethan has his own strange encounter with Sophie in the guesthouse, the true nature of what they’re grappling with is revealed: an alternate Ethan and Sophie exist on the grounds but only one of their real counterparts can enter the guesthouse at a time to see them.

Unlike with Enemy, there’s no question that the events of The One I Love are happening in the real world. Though Ethan and Sophie are understandably freaked out by their discovery, they’re also intrigued and decide to explore the therapeutic possibilities of their situation, opening themselves up to the doubles in ways they can’t with one another anymore. It soon becomes clear that not only do the doppelgangers embody the best and most appealing aspects of their counterparts but that the real Sophie is falling in love with the replica Ethan. Once all four of them get in a room together the film resembles a Charlie Kaufman rewrite of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as secrets are revealed and already-strained loyalties are tested. Anyone who’s seen enough movies will likely see the final twist coming once it’s discovered that only one version of the couple can leave the property, and the film bends a bit too far backwards in its attempts to explain just where the doppelgangers came from.

But regardless of the eventual answers provided, the questions raised by the doubles are intriguing enough. The film wisely eschews including much back story – we know how the couple met and that Ethan betrayed Sophie by cheating on her, but we don’t know how long they’ve been together, what work they do, or even really where they live. They could be any couple who’s lost the passion of the early days of their relationship and have yet to reconcile what they once had with what they are now. But given the option to trade in your spouse for an identical, enhanced model, would you take it? Just how desirable is a partner who meets all your needs and expectations anyway? By the time the real Ethan and Sophie have decided their fates, it’s the audience who’s left to mull over whether those choices were the right ones.

The Double movie

The Double, more a riff on Dostoyevsky’s novella than a strict adaptation, is also about fate and choices, though it’s less interested in relationships between people than our relationship with ourselves. Jesse Eisenberg stars as the doppelgangers and is first introduced as Simon, a hapless and meek office drone eking out a pitiful existence in a world that recalls the absurd dystopian atmosphere of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. He has a habit of spying on the building across the street — particularly Hannah, a co-worker of his that he pines for, despite their lack of even a casual friendship. One night he sees a man jump to his death after waving to him. Not long afterward a new employee is introduced at the office: James, who is an exact replica of Simon physically but very different in every other way. He’s arrogant, aggressive, and seems to have no trouble getting what he wants. Nobody seems to notice that the two of them look the same. When Simon asks his friend Harris why that is he tells him, “You’re kind of a non-person.”

Still the two doubles strike up something akin to a friendship. James is keen to exploit the fact that they look alike to get out of doing tests at work and Simon is taken in by his double’s irrepressibility and vigor. But the alliance turns sour as the true ruthlessness of James comes to light. He coaches Simon on how to get Hannah to notice him but quickly seduces her himself. Eventually he is blackmailing Simon for access to his apartment so he can bring other women there and taking credit for the work that Simon does. Soon the company is denying that Simon even works for them at all. “I am a person,” he shouts, “I exist!” But in the ways that matter, he stopped existing long ago.

Director and co-writer Ayoade makes no effort to explain where the doppelganger has come from or what exactly he wants from Simon, which fits with the film’s sinister but loopy tone. In addition to the Gilliam and Dostoyevsky influences, The Double also nods to the work of Kafka and Orwell in its depiction of a brutal, almost totalitarian world where a sense of inexplicable doom hangs over every action and character portrayed. By the time it is revealed that an injury done to one double will appear on the other, the film is hurtling toward a climax of chilling cynicism. Nobody likes to feel alone in this world but the existence of someone exactly like us would not be much comfort either. In an age where people want to believe they’re special and unique the realization that we’re just like everyone else might be the most destructive of all.

In the end this might be the most potent implication of the doppelganger motif. While none of these entries in 2014’s doppelganger in film course, or other 2014 releases like Coherence and Another Me that play with similar themes, end up having much in common beyond the doubling concept, they all use it to explore the things we tell ourselves to make our lives worth living. Recent years have seen an explosion in the use of Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sharing sites that turn all of us into self-curators, posting and blogging about the most interesting parts of our days to create our own best selves. Meals, vacations, and nights out on the town are repackaged online in the hopes of likes and shares from both dear friends and people we barely remember meeting. Even wedding and birth announcements have to be carefully crafted for clickability. For those on the bubble between the Gen-X and millennial age, as many of these filmmakers and screenwriters are, the technological obsessions of the new generation can seem alienating, even disturbing, and the questions these films raise relate to that sense of disquiet. As more and more of our lives play out online, how far away are we getting from who we really are? And if we don’t know who we are, how can we know when our doubles have taken over?

Sara

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.
Sara