2014 saw the wide release of an unusual bounty of films about doppelgängers. Besides comic book superheroes it had to be the most common cinematic topic of the year. As early as Spring there was a heap of press citing similarities between Enemy & The Double, two doppelgänger movies based on doppelgänger novels both titled The Double (one by José Saramago & one by Fyodor Dostoyevsky). I joked that if they shared a distributor (they don’t) they should be released on home video as a combo pack. It turns out that besides one (admittedly major) detail in premise the two films actually have very little in common. As the year went on I found the true spiritual doppelgängers of Enemy & The Double in highly unlikely places, as well as a few more doppelgänger movies & their own unlikely partners.
Of course there are possible spoilers for all titles listed in bold below.
The Double (2014) & Joe Versus The Volcano (1990)
Although Richard Ayoade’s The Double didn’t deliver the similarities to Enemy that I expected, it wore other, stranger influences on its sleeve. It not only boasted visual cues picked up from David Lynch’s oeuvre, but also intentionally mirrored Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The Double’s similarities with Brazil are so purposeful Ayoade’s film could be considered a long-form homage. What’s infinitely more surprising to me is the similarities it shares with the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy Joe Versus The Volcano.
There’s a good deal of humor lurking under the surface of the Lynch & Gilliam influences Ayoade pulls from, but The Double is more of an unambiguous black comedy, its own dark humor resting in plain view. Its sinister amusement with depression & the grim life of an office drone positions it as more of a modern descendent of Joe in terms of genre. The Double’s Jesse Eisenberg’s work life is so surreally awful the only character in cinema I can compare it to is Tom Hanks’ Joe. The set design in both characters’ offices are achievements in over-the-top blandness. They both ache with yearning for coworkers who don’t know they exist. They even both serve clueless megalomaniac bosses portrayed by gifted character actors (Wallace Shawn & Dan Hedeya, respectively).
Admittedly, the resemblance fades after the first half of Joe. When the plot catalyst hits Joe (a life-threatening “brain cloud”) the protagonist gets to escape his oppressive life as a faceless worker & embark on a grand adventure in search of the titular volcano. The Double doesn’t allow its catalyst (a second Jesse Eisenberg, one less akin to George Michael Bluth) to shake things up in the same way. Ayoade instead forces his protagonist to see his grim, thankless life through to a bitter end.
Enemy (2014) & Stranger By The Lake (2014)
James & I once got in a particularly nerdy argument in a dive bar about the merits of Enemy. He was a huge fan of the film (it made his Top Ten list for the year after all), while I found it interesting, but far more self-serious than it needed to be (or maybe than I wanted it to be). Trying to discern what aspect of our personalities split us on the film (probably his love of & my aversion to philosophy), I brought up another recent release we were split on: Stranger By The Lake. In my attempts to defend Stranger in that conversation I noticed a common theme between it & Enemy. Both films feel like cryptic allegories for the dangers of carnal desire.
In an unfairly linear (& likely false) synopsis of Enemy, the protagonist’s libido tempts him to stray from intimacy with his pregnant wife to the point where his personality is split into two dueling halves. This split (again, in a deliberately simple analysis) leads the doppelgänger Jake Gyllenhaals into a deadly world of adultery & spiders. The protagonist in Stranger By The Lake, a man who regularly cruises for sexual activity on a gay nudist beach, feels a similar carnal pull. His two closest relationships, an unlikely friendship with a schlub he finds physically uninteresting but personally magnetic & a sexual affair with a very attractive man he knows to be a murderer, split his time in the same libido-driven downfall that corrupts the Gyllenhaals.
When viewed in a certain context, Enemy & Stranger can be interpreted as spiritual doubles in the parables they tell. Whether you value one over the other or not is, of course, a manner of personal preference.
Coherence (2014) & The One I Love (2014)
Two of 2014’s biggest surprises were the read-too-much-about-them-and-you’ll-ruin-them Coherence & The One I Love. Of the pair, Coherence was more of the critical darling, while The One I Love was more-or-less thought to be an interesting picture that couldn’t stick the landing. Personally, I believe The One I Love to be just as great (if not better) than Coherence. Both films push their supernatural left-turn premises to outlandish places while remaining grounded & emotionally potent. Together they help carve out a modern Romantic Horror genre (within which they’re the tiny indie equivalents to the major studio RomHorror Gone Girl).
Common assumption would suggest that Coherence’s rightful doppelgänger would be a Twilight Zone episode (particularly the classic “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”) but it’s inseparable from The One I Love in my mind. This may not be the most surprising pairing on this list, as The One I Love also owes a hefty debt to The Twilight Zone. Enjoyment of both movies is ideally enhanced by an ignorance of their basic plots, something so delicate I fear I’m wrecking it by including them here. They both do a lot with a little, squeezing impressive mileage out of small budgets & a few great actors.
Again, my preferences & James’ were at odds over these titles, as Coherence appeared on his best of the year list & The One I Love appeared on mine. In this case we both liked both movies a good deal, though. There was no nerdy dive bar discussion necessary.
Honeymoon (2014) & Slither (2006)
Speaking of Romantic Horror, the under-the-radar Honeymoon works like Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of Safety Not Guaranteed. Its calm, pragmatic approach to its supernatural my-wife-is-not-my-wife plot recalls the vibe of Coherence & The One I Love more than any other doppelgänger pairing on this list. All three films make the most extraordinary plots feel like conceivable relationship troubles that every couple goes through from time to time. Honeymoon is not alone in this world & the comparisons to Body Snatchers are especially well deserved, but I found other surprising similarities in the central relationship of James Gunn’s 2006 slapstick horror Slither.
Besides its own debt to Body Snatchers, Slither is wildly different from Honeymoon in tone & intent. Where the escalation in Honeymoon is calm & measured, Slither throws everything (including buckets of viscera) against the wall to see what sticks. However, the gradual escalation of unignorable changes in a spouse’s behavior binds them together. In Slither, the antagonist Grant Grant (played by world-class creep Michael Rooker) initially seems a bit out of it to his wife following an incident in the woods. The changes in his behavior spiral out of control in the most horrifying (and shockingly funny) ways imaginable. Honeymoon’s horror hinges on its own in-the-woods behavior altering event, but the results are decidedly a quieter form of terror, as opposed to Slither’s fever-pitched absurdity.
These movies aren’t broadly linked in their approaches to horror, but instead in the detail of their threats’ gradual revelations to the ones they love.
The Face of Love (2014) & Birth (2004)
The least successful film on this list artistically, The Face of Love attempts the grounded approach to the paranormal Coherence & The One I Love achieve, but ultimately falls short. Despite an interesting premise & some great performances from familiar faces Annette Benning, Ed Harris, and Robin Williams, the film never breaks through the trappings of an undistinguished trifle. Part of the problem is that an eerily similar plot has been executed so well before in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth.
The Face of Love mirrors Birth’s story of a woman who improbably meets her husband after his death, but takes it to less ambiguous, less visually striking territory. It’s not a bad movie exactly, but instead a mediocre version of its superior double. Both movies tackle the grieving process in an unusual manner, but Birth does it better. There are images & moments from Birth that will stick with me my entire life. I expect I’ll forget most of The Face of Love within the month.
It’s a bit unfair to include a movie here only to suggest that there’s a better version of it out there, but in the end it’s the doppelgänger’s job to kill its weaker double. It’s only natural.