“You’re in my place,” asserts the faceless man looming over Simon James. Simon stares up at him, submissive and shadowed beneath the man’s towering presence and his perplexing, inherently threatening statement. Simon glances around, timid, at a swathe of empty seats, then looks back up at the anonymous stranger. There is not a single other soul on the train car shared between the two of them. But he knows that the man will not move until Simon does, and so Simon stands, conquered swiftly by a boldness that is utterly alien to him, utterly separated from him. He remains standing, gripping onto the hanging straps of the train car dangling above him. The man sits down where Simon once sat, opens his paper, and starts to read. Simon no longer exists to the man. It is unclear if he ever really did.
From Moon, to Dead Ringers, to Black Swan, The Parent Trap, and, more recently, Cam, the concept of doubles or “doppelgängers” is no stranger to cinema. Characterized as a harbinger of doom (“Kill your double,” declares radio host Cecil Baldwin of the cosmic horror-comedy podcast, Welcome to Nightvale), doubles in film are typically a sign of some great personal, emotional, and/or mental shift for the character, who is forced to come face-to-face with their own identical copy. But that’s the catch – our doubles are never quite identical. Such as with Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy and David Lynch’s Lost Highway, the doubles represent a distinct, more elevated version of the characters in question, with whom the audience is first acquainted. In Enemy, Jake Gyllenhaal’s mild-mannered college professor, Adam, discovers his twin in Anthony – a successful, charismatic, and aggressive actor. In Lost Highway, Alice (Patricia Arquette) is a dead ringer for Renee, but a little sleeker, a little sexier, a lot more enigmatic, and a lot less dead.
In many ways, the idea of the double works in tandem with the fears and insecurities we harbor in real life. We cultivate separate, more interesting personas of ourselves on the internet to supplement our seemingly mediocre realities; we engage with BuzzFeed quizzes to see which sitcom character we’re most similar to as we hunt for our celebrity look-alikes. We desire better versions of ourselves because we are endlessly perceiving reality as inadequate – but what does it mean when these better versions attempt to replace us entirely?
Adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, Richard Ayoade’s 2013 film, The Double, attempts to tackle these same concepts: of the anxieties associated with perceptions of our current selves not being quite good enough; and of one day facing our exact replica who is everything we are not, everything we want to be; and what becomes of us when this replica endeavors to take control. But what if our exact replica really was us? Not exactly us, but more so an incomplete half that yearns for its twin because, in a certain respect, we yearn for it as well. In The Double, Simon James and his evil twin, James Simon, represent two halves of an identity that are not quite whole, that cannot exist without each other but cannot live while the other one does, too. Unlike in Enemy, Simon James triumphs over his doppelgänger. And he does not simply kill James Simon, but rather consumes him, taking on the qualities that could not function properly within James by himself, but which empower the ones that Simon James already had.
Against the backdrop of a bleak, sepia-toned alternate universe, with an indistinguishable time period and sense of industrialist haze akin to that of Eraserhead, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) floats through his life like a phantom. Perpetually downtrodden, he works at an unidentifiable office job overseen by a mysterious man called “The Colonel,” whose posters appear all over the buildings, sporting taglines like, “The office can be a jungle. Let the Colonel help,” and advertisements on television, which advocate the idea that everyone in an office is unique and important. When we first meet Simon after his unfortunate encounter with the stranger on his train, he arrives at his stop only to be delayed by a man blocking the way out. When he finally gets off, his briefcase is caught between the closing doors and the train blows by him still clinging to it. He arrives at his job where the cold receptionist dismisses the idea that Simon has worked there for seven years. He asks for Simon’s ID, then his supplementary ID, which is still in Simon’s briefcase that left with the train. Simon is admitted, but only as a visitor.
He is further overlooked by his boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), who refers to him as “Stanley” and, like the receptionist, seems unaware that Simon has worked for him for the better half of a decade. Papadopoulos requests that Simon mentor his daughter, Melanie (Yasmin Page), who tells Simon that he might as well kill himself. He goes to the copy room and is belittled by the older woman who works there. The object of his unrequited affections, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), works alongside this older woman, and is kind to him in fleeting moments, but seems overwhelmingly indifferent towards his presence. At the end of his day, he visits his mother in a nursing home – who degrades him – and then returns home to his dingy, no-bedroom apartment, where he fondly observes Hannah, Rear Window-style, in the building across from his, as she creates pen-and-ink drawings. She then rips them up and discards them in the trash (before he journeys to the trash bin to retrieve and admire them).
After witnessing a man commit suicide by jumping off a ledge from Hannah’s apartment building, to which he is explained by a pair of dry-witted detectives that if the man had just jumped a little more to the right, he would have bounced off of the awning and lived, Simon James arrives at work the next day to an unwelcome surprise: James Simon is their newest hire, and he’s identical to Simon in every physical way. Charming and confident, James is so polar opposite to Simon in his staggeringly different amount of bravado that it seems no one can discern their mirroring faces except for James and Simon themselves. Thus, out of pity on James’s behalf, commences the pair’s imbalanced partnership, as James attempts to “help” Simon break out of his shell and seduce Hannah, while slowly but surely worming his way into Simon’s life, intending to subsume it entirely.
At first, one might question why someone as suave and self-assured as James Simon would want anything from Simon James’s miserable little life, as it’s all too evident why Simon would want nearly everything of James’s. But it becomes clear that Simon is not the only one of the two who’s lacking in essential characteristics to create a being who’s truly complete. On the one hand, James Simon is entirely comprised of aggression, braggadocio, and sexual impulse, whereas Simon James attempts to exist through only his quiet empathy, intelligence, and yearning for relationships that he doesn’t have the confidence to forge (see: his voyeurism of Hannah, the closest thing he can get to what feels like true human connection). In essence, both James and Simon are ghosts of real people. And though Simon is the one more easily disregarded, both of them are made up of important traits to encompass a person but need each other for sustained survival. Alternatively, James Simon could simply be considered Simon’s “evil twin,” “an evil force with no shadow or reflection,” hence James’s lack of true compassion, his selfishness, and his desire to overtake Simon. He is merely a pure villain.
But The Double is about more than good versus evil, and consequently, Simon and James are themselves more than such a rudimentary equation. Whether or not James is simply Simon’s “tulpa” – a word from Tibetan mysticism, recently popularized by Twin Peaks: The Return, which refers to a sentient being or doppelgänger created through someone’s own “mental or spiritual powers” – and was manifested by Simon himself as a means to finally conquer his own failings, both James and Simon represent two unfinished parts necessary to a sustainable whole.
Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the psyche defines three distinct, interacting agents: the id, the ego, and the super-ego. In all of James Simon’s unchecked, animalistic glory, he is akin to the id, the part of the brain that acts on the pleasure principle – only seeking out the means to its own satisfaction, acting solely on impulse and basic, instinctual drives. James Simon takes advantage of and deceives both Hannah and Papadopoulos’s daughter, acting purely on his desire for sexual gratification while apathetic towards their emotional responses. He seeks out Simon’s intelligence, using Simon to take an aptitude test in his place and stealing Simon’s hard-worked regression analysis, claiming all the glory for himself. He even attends the funeral of Simon’s mother while posing as Simon, as James attempts to steal away Simon’s emotional attachments that he lacks on his own, for himself.
In this same respect, Simon is then like the super-ego, our critical, moralizing conscience, which works in opposition to the id: “The super-ego strives to act in a socially appropriate manner, whereas the id just wants instant self-gratification. The super-ego controls our sense of right and wrong and guilt.” Because the super-ego’s desires often go against those of the id, the two are usually found at odds with one another. Simon desires love, passion, acceptance, and recognition, while embodying traits of empathy and sensitivity, whereas James’s desire only stems from his primal urges. But the thing is – James knows this. He knows that he has no true capacity for affection or emotion, and therefore wants to take control over what Simon has; not necessarily learn how to love, but pretend. Not take in Simon’s good qualities in addition to his own, but substitute them in an entirely deceitful way. He does not want to work with the super-ego; he wants to replace it, becoming the domineering personality of the ghost named Simon James.
“I don’t know how to be myself,” Simon laments to James one night, while riding the train together. “It’s like I’m permanently outside myself. Like, like you could push your hands straight through me if you wanted to. And I can see the type of man I want to be versus the type of man I actually am, and I know that I’m doing it but I’m incapable of what needs to be done.” Indeed, Simon James understands that something about him is off, something fundamental which keeps him at arms-length from both himself and from others, in the same way that James understands it of himself. In the end, without Simon, James cannot infiltrate civilized society; without James, Simon will continue drifting on through life nearly invisible to those around him. But unlike James in his desire to replace Simon, it is the conflict between the two that begins to embolden Simon on his steady path to consuming James entirely.
From a heated fist-fight during his mother’s funeral, in James’s ultimate and most offensive bid to become him, Simon learns that they share injuries – a blow to James’s nose renders Simon’s equally bloody, despite no contact being made. It is this uncanny discovery that not only leads one to conclude that, to some degree, Simon and James truly are one and the same, but leads Simon down the path of epiphany. While James is sound asleep in Simon’s bed (James having even taken control of Simon’s apartment, initially just for sleeping with women), Simon chains him to the bedpost, then jumps from the same place the nameless man had jumped from to his death at the start of the film – but Simon jumps a few feet to the right. His body bounces off of the awning and onto the black concrete, maimed but alive, where Hannah rushes to his side and an ambulance whisks him away. James is left to bleed out, unattended to, in Simon’s apartment.
Building up to this climactic ending, Simon had already been well on his way to turning anew. In his rage to maintain his identity (something that has consistently been withheld from him) and defeat James, he built up the courage to consider his identity something worth saving. He goes to Hannah’s apartment and asks her with intense fervor if she knows who he is – she finally does. A garbage man asks Simon what he’s doing while on his way to kill James, and Simon tells him to “fuck off.” In fact, the entire act of killing James itself solidifies Simon’s metamorphosis from passive voyeur of his own existence to fully realized human being. From his conflict with James, he takes in confidence, aggression, and assertiveness. Killing him solidifies not simply overtaking James, but melding with him as one. It took defeating his own self, coupled with his inherent fear of disappearing forever, to change himself for the better.
Simon thus, in a way, becomes the ego – the realistic, mediating balance between the desires of the id and the super-ego – which allows a person to “function effectively in the real world.” However, this all of course lends itself to the question of whether Simon really did create James on his own; an intentional physical manifestation that he’d be forced to defeat in order to finally transcend himself. Whether or not James was manufactured by Simon, James was still a necessary part of him. James could not exist without Simon, and by the end of the film, it’s clear that Simon could not continue existing without James. Their physical link furthers this idea, that James Simon was less of an entirely separated doppelgänger than he was an unfinished half in the same way that Simon was. In order for them to merge as a single, functioning individual, Simon had to take from James what was necessary and destroy the husk of a cruel human being that he was.
In the final moments of the film, as Simon lays bloodied and bruised on a gurney in the back of the ambulance, he is accompanied not only by Hannah, watching over him fondly, but by The Colonel himself. He says to him, “There aren’t too many like you, are there, Simon?” The Colonel’s presence, whether or not another figment created by Simon, signifies the true visibility of Simon as a person. He has been recognized by the official advocate for individuality, which means, at least to Simon, that he is finally real, no longer held up by strings (as he once told James). Simon James has reclaimed power over his identity.
In The Double, our doppelgänger is something inseparable from us as a limb. We are, as it turns out, our own worst enemy. Simon replies to The Colonel, his voice steadier than it’s ever been, “I’d like to think I’m pretty unique.”