George Bernard Shaw, born on this day in 1856, on marriage, the oppression of women, and the hypocrisy of monogamy
"Here’s looking at you, kid" was improvised by Humphrey Bogart in the Parisian scenes and worked so well that it was used later on again in the film.
“I can picture the man I want to be,” Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) says, “but I can’t do what I need to do.” Simon’s confiding because he’s a bit tipsy on the subway ride home, his knees hugged tight to his chest. It’s one of those rare late-nights he’s loose enough to take off his blazer, that sandpaper-brown thing with the big shoulders. It’s been a rare night-out of letting go. There was the pool hall, chatting up two girls. “The brunette is a dirty, dirty girl,” Simon’s wingman had said. There was the shoulder-bump and the beer spilled on to the guy with too many tattoos and not enough hair. A misunderstanding solved with a head butt. Of course, Simon didn’t actually do any of these things, he just watched quietly and tee-totaled from his drink. Quietly only at first, then exhilarated as he joined in a full sprint away from the bar fight. The guy who actually-actually did all those badass things was Simon’s wingman, James Simon (Jesse Eisenberg). He’s the guy Simon’s confiding to on this here subway ride. James is sitting directly across the car, his stretched-legs out over three seats. James Simon is Simon James’s exact physical double, but he’s got charisma and id. Literally, the exact man that Simon pictures he wants to be.
The world in The Double feels more-than-vaguely Eastern European in the 80s. Simon’s workplace, where silver-haired lifers poke at keyboards, is free of any natural light. Instead, faces are lit analog-green by the glow off Commodore 64 monitors. Each cubicle has its own overhead exhaust above to suck out some kind of fume or some kind of life-force. We never learn what all these men actually do at this unnamed government agency, though Simon has a Regression Analysis proposal that he thinks will revolutionize the place’s efficiency. Half the people have an American accent and the other half an English so I feel a little bit of Terry Gillian. This world isn’t hiding its Kafka, too, as pretty much everyone aside from Simon is dead-eyed and unimpressed. And whenever Simon asks anything innocuous, in the most polite way, all he gets back is the most impressive, quick-witted, snark. Every interaction feels like bad customer service. When he, for example, misplaces his supplementary ID and his main work ID isn’t properly scanning (and a supplementary ID to an ID shows the infinite regress and that ID is a hollow placeholder of identity), security isn’t having that shit. You’ve seen me every day for the last seven years. The main guard looks past Simon and says, “I don’t work Saturdays and Sundays so it’s impossible for you to see me every day.” And take the waitress at his local diner, always a bit too quick in responding to his order: “We’re out of bagels. We’re out of Coke.” Simon’s nebbishness, his constant anxiety is just out of step. He moves with his hands at his sides, his fingers always scratching at each other. “Good idea, Stanley,” his boss says about Simon’s proposal, as they walk quick through the office, “you just started here, right?” Simon (nee Stanley) replies: “Yes, sir: seven years ago.”
Simon is out of step because partly because he’s young and nameless and less aggressive than anyone in this world. But he’s also out of step because, at this point in his life, he feels a bit more emotion than average. Along with his intense feelings of insecurity and impotence comes some acute loneliness. It’s hard to connect when everyone finds him abnormal. He works hard and wants to be recognized at his job. I get that. He visits his overbearing mother diligently. I get that, too. On one visit to her nursing home, as he feeds her from a bowl of porridge, they watch a TV commercial about his company and there’s a shot of Simon in center frame, nodding, acting as if implementing his Regression Analysis project. He’s wearing that same dusty tweed he always does. “There are no special people. Just people,” the commercial says. After the screen fades to black, Simon looks to his mom for some praise. Instead she asks, “Which one were you?” Simon, dressed (dusty tweed) and groomed exactly as he was onscreen, says, “I don’t know how to answer that.” This is his mother. It sounds sad but with the right touch and wit, and with Simon’s pure heart, this is pretty funny stuff.
Simon lives in a Soviet-era looking flat, eight or so floors of concrete with a quad between his building and the one across the way. Through his telescope, he watches the apartment where his co-worker, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), lives. She crafts and paints, for no one but herself as she tears her works up and sprinkles the shreds down the garbage chute. Simon bolts whenever she does this to collect the pieces. We watch him reassemble one which turns out to be Hannah’s reproduction of Rene Magritte’s Not To Be Reproduced, two sketches of the backs of her head replacing the two male heads. She seems to sway, to move in waves. She’s lonely, too, the only person Simon can possibly connect with. And she pretty. Simon just doesn’t know how to talk to her. Well, he does know how because he can picture the man he needs to be to get her.
For each of us, there’s a tension in imagining the perfect version of ourself yet never getting across the gulf, moving from imagination to real life, to be that man. In this movie, the quirk is that the perfect version of Simon actually, in real life, shows up at his office one day. “You’ll have my job soon, young hotshot,” the boss says as he introduces James Simon to the office. Instead of scratching his fingers at his side, James crosses his arms and stands tall. That big tweed don’t look so ill-fitting on him. Instead of unsure half-smiles, he smirks at all the right, flirty moments. And where Simon is a step slower than everyone else, James’s wit is two steps quicker. He’ll explain the company’s work to an impressionable intern: “There’s a sensuality to data entry and collections. We give these random names life, even immortality.” Simon faints at the first sight of his exact physical-double, but no one else even really notices: “No offense, but you’re pretty unnoticeable.” At first, Simon has admiration for James. On that subway ride together after that guys night out, James falls asleep on the train. Simon puts his new friend over his shoulder and lays him in bed. He removes his shoes and even strokes his chin. The comedy gets a bit more sinister as Simon’s admiration curdles. I laughed hard as Simon started getting credit, the promotions, too, for James’s work. As Simon caught Hannah’s eye and as he took over James’s apartment: “I’ll be bringing different women over, if you notice different smells.” But my laughter was cut with anxiety as Simon becomes gradually overwhelmed. The Eastern Euro aesthetic is apt because James’s presence in Simon’s life feels, frankly, fascist.
The movie, on the surface, looks like it’s about the anonymity of life, the nameless job and the nameless company. The slog of workaday life. But I think the main theme is about the aspiration to that perfect self in your imagination. I remember reading Adam Phillips’s Missing Out and how it’s overwhelming and enervating to keep trying to be that imaginary version of yourself because he’ll just keep getting better as you keep getting better, keep one step ahead of you, ad infinitum. You keep wanting the guy’s successes (and he hasn’t really actualized anything). You love that guy until you can’t. The Double makes this idea so literal. Funny, but, with the paranoia and anxiety: a horror movie. James will blackmail you with illicit polaroids. He’ll steal your job and even put a knife to your neck. And Simon goes from admiration, to dislike, to fear, and then to rage. And rage becomes that worst shit: resentment. Such intense serious emotions pointed all at someone who looks like you exactly, in every way.
"You’re taking my picture!"