Canada Spain (90 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: Denis Villeneuve Official Site
Canada Spain (90 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: Denis Villeneuve Official Site
Chaos is order yet undeciphered.
—The Double (O Homem Duplicado), by José Saramago, 2002
Despite the blip that is Prisoners (2013), something of an aberration in this director’s body of work, it was perhaps a bloated pay date needed to make the smaller budgeted kind of movies that he more typically wants to make, usually expressing an unhinged, apocalyptic world out of control, but shown through an arthouse sensibility. This film returns to the grim reality of a sleek modernism and existential ennui of Antonioni, where the Toronto skyline is bathed in a brownish tinge, as if continually shrouded in a layer of smog, where the world is seen through drab, washed out colors. This different look holds a key to understanding all is not right, where the film actually toys with the territory of Shane Carruth’s PRIMER (2004), playing the same kind of psychological mind games with the audience. It begins with a prelude sequence that may or may not be a dream, bearing a surprising similarity to the ritualized orgy sequence of Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), but is then quickly forgotten as we return to the banal existence of the classroom where college professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) spends his days lecturing to mostly bored students, describing how the Romans used entertainment, “bread and circuses,” as an effective diversion to distract the public from their larger unstated goal, which was to maintain total control over the population, emphatically reminding his students that history has a way of repeating itself, before returning home at night to a mostly disinterested relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent), where having sex has become a habitual routine, as they barely even acknowledge one another. While they share the same space, they may as well be strangers. Even at work, Adam is something of an isolated and dejected looking individual, rarely cracking a smile, often keeping to himself, avoiding social contact. While eating a sandwich in the lunchroom, a coworker asks him if he goes out much, “You don’t go to movies, do you?” After an awkward silence, he asks the coworker to finish his thought, asking if he had a recommendation. While this appears as idle talk, the recommended movie changes the entire dynamic of the film.
The early focus of the film shows how Adam may have a glass of wine at night, or become preoccupied on his computer as a way of avoiding contact with Mary, where he watches this low budget comedy, supposedly to lift his spirits, after she’s already gone to bed. While the film itself is of little consequence, a breezy, lightweight comedy called Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, which initially generates little reaction. It’s only afterwards when he wakes up in a state of panic that he goes back and rewinds the movie to a certain scene where one of the minor characters, a bellhop, looks exactly identical to himself. This moment is beautifully set up by a certain confusion where the audience isn’t certain if this is real or a dream, where it could also be part of the movie, but the onset of horror and shock sets in when Adam comes to the startling realization that there’s an exact double of himself running around out there in the world. Curiosity gets the better of him, where he investigates this little known actor and discovers he’s Anthony Clare, living outside Toronto, where initially he contacts his pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon, seen earlier in the opening prelude), which opens up a can of worms in the Clare household, as Helen initially suspects her husband of cheating, while also instilling a feeling of alarm in Adam, who insists upon meeting and seeing his double, but this happening defies belief, as it simply confounds rational thought. Isabella Rossellini has a wonderfully mysterious role as his mother, claiming of course there’s no possibility of a brother, but then in the same breath tells him he should stop wasting his time doing those third rate acting pictures, which is like a small bomb going off somewhere in our heads, as we wonder (from the safe distance of our seats) how can this be? Poor Adam has even less to go on, yet it’s actually happening to him, so he literally shudders at the thought. The similarities between the two are an exact physical replica, but they have personality differences, as Adam is quieter, less ambitious, more somber and structured, moving with a certain quizzical trepidation, while Anthony is more extravagant and self-centered, an overcontrolling guy with a quick temper that needs to be the center of attention, dressed in a leather jacket, living in a sterile but upscale modern home, moving with a more reckless moral abandon, where he doesn’t feel the least bit guilty about cheating on his wife.
Based on the novel The Double by José Saramago, whose work was also the source material to Fernando Meirelles’ BLINDNESS (2008), the film is adapted by a Javier Guillón script and Nicolas Bolduc’s edgy cinematography which gives the unsettling futuristic appearance of looming high rise buildings caught in a yellowish brown haze, where in one hallucinogenic image, a giant spider is seen hovering over a gloomy landscape of the city, where the overhanging trolley lines resemble a spider’s web, as if somehow this is an alternate nightmarish version of what’s real. Because of the similar features of the two wives, both attractive young blonds, with marital difficulties expressed in each case, it’s easy to see how these two could be confused as well, except that Helen is noticeably pregnant. Because her husband is hiding behind this incident, Helen grows curious about this other guy, following him to school, where she sees for herself how one is like the cloned copy of the other. Actually, as the film progresses, the men switch identities and Adam exhibits more of the ruthless behavior of Anthony, suggesting interior compulsions that can’t be controlled coming from the subconscious, where we are reminded of Adam’s earlier lecture describing a totalitarian system, claiming one reason they succeed is that “They censor any means of individual expression.” The film plays out as an allegorical nightmare, turning raw, graphic, and intensely real by the end, with an unforgettable final shot. Certainly with an exact double and a parallel existence, it’s suggestive of what life would be like under a totalitarian system, as one could never be an individual again. Saramago was three years old when a military coup overthrew the Portuguese government, living under a fascist regime for the next 48 years, where this is a common theme explored throughout most of his work, “We live in a dark age, when freedoms are diminishing, when there is no space for criticism, when totalitarianism—the totalitarianism of multinational corporations, of the marketplace—no longer even needs an ideology, and religious intolerance is on the rise. Orwell’s ‘1984’ is already here.” If history has a way of repeating itself, fascist regimes occur again and again throughout history, where these historic parallels are patterns of connecting threads, like a spider’s web, where we are caught unawares in a trap of authoritarian rule that has us in its clutches before we realize far too late what’s happening.