Man in the mirror: Jesse Eisenberg as Simon/James
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A case of homage overload: The Double by Richard Ayoade

Two films into his directing career, the former star of the IT Crowd  has yet to exhibit an original voice.

Watching a lot of movies is not a prerequisite for being a good director. In unusual instances, it can even be an impediment. Richard Ayoade is a case in point. As a comic performer, this actor-turned-film-maker has a distinctive style: he mixed the naive and the knowing to sophisticated effect in The IT Crowd, in which he played Moss, king of the nerds, stiff and straight as an ironing board, with a lopsided wedge of haywire hair.

Two films into his directing career, he has yet to exhibit a comparably original voice. Both the coming-of-age comedy Submarine (2010) and its superficially darker follow-up, a loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novella The Double, suffer from a severe case of homage overload. While I am overjoyed for Ayoade that he has seen such films as Brazil, Eraserhead, The Tenant and the collected works of Aki Kaurismäki, a 90-minute tour of his DVD collection is no substitute for a film. Casting is one area where The Double is strong. As Simon, the office drone so ineffectual that automatic doors fail to register his presence, Jesse Eisenberg is ideal. He’s so pale that a pint of milk would look like Tizer alongside him, so jittery that he surely stammers even in his thoughts. Simon is already a nervous wreck before witnessing a man in the opposite building jump to his death. There is also his agony at lusting after a demure, icicle-like colleague (Mia Wasikowska) to little noticeable effect and discovering that she may have played some part in the leaper’s demise. (It turns out that she told him, “Stop fucking following me!” the day before his death. “Do you think there’s some connection?” she asks innocently.)

Then Simon is spooked to find that his exact double, James, has begun working in the office. Even worse, James starts passing off Simon’s achievements as his own and currying favour with the boss (Wallace Shawn). James is also played by Eisenberg, though a supreme gag here would have been to cast the similarly pallid and angular Michael Cera; after all, both actors have remarked publicly that they are forever being mistaken for one another. Cera’s ongoing campaign to muss up his geeky persona began a few years ago with Youth in Revolt (2009), in which he played both a nerd and his suave alter ego: exactly what Eisenberg is called on to do here. Then again, Youth in Revolt was breezy fun, whereas The Double has its sights set stubbornly on being art. If there is a faster route for a director to end up with egg on his face, it has escaped me temporarily.

The movie is glazed with a feeble sense of dread, nowhere more so than in the area of production design, which has a retro-futuristic aesthetic: sickly green lighting, exposed ducts and pipes, technology with an antiquated spin (such as the photocopier equipped with clunky dials). Framed pictures of the omniscient Colonel (James Fox) recall Big Brother from Nineteen Eighty-Four but even in its homages the movie is derivative – Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian fantasy Brazil went by the working title of 1984½. The problem, as with everything in The Double, is not that the influences are transparent but that they are all the film has. Those of a forgiving spirit might take this for an in-joke, as if Ayoade were making the movie itself into a double, a 24-frames-per-second facsimile.

Even generous viewers might wonder at the film’s preference for effect over feeling, affectation over depth. Ayoade can shoot a garishly coloured room flickering under a broken strip-light as well as the next David Lynch fan but where is the palpable menace required in any cinematic nightmare? We never discover why it is such a bad deal for Simon to meet his doppelgänger; the film wouldn’t be noticeably different if the interloper were not James but, say, any hunk with designs on Simon’s girl. Ayoade is not slow to pile on the zaniness (a suicide squad assesses Simon as a “maybe” and there are visits to a nursing home where the residents carry weapons). He also recruits his comedy chums (Chris Morris, Chris O’Dowd) for unremarkable cameos. Taking this story of the uncanny and stripping it of any eeriness must count as his most striking achievement, as well as his most perverse.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism