The Double is based on a story by Dostoyevsky, but when I was watching it I kept thinking about Kafka. Partly that’s because the adjective we use to describe a bureaucratic nightmare world that’s existentially dark / sickly funny is “Kafkaesque” and not “Dostoyevskian” - even though Kafka isn’t necessarily the best writer to engage in that genre, he’s the one who is most closely associated with it. But in large part I was thinking about Kafka because I realized how much the tiny little bits of optimism that bubble up in Kafka make the world so much more palatable.
Take for example the Trial. The set up is straight out of a nightmare: a man discovers that he’s been accused of a crime, but no one will tell him what it is, and he’s going to go on trial at some point, but no one will tell him when, and his punishment is sure to be harsh but no one can give him specifics. The whole ordeal is unremittingly bleak – but the man is naively optimistic about it all. He keeps thinking that if there’s someone he can talk to, some explanation he can give, he can clear up the whole mess. He isn’t being persecuted, there’s just been some mistake.
The Double doesn’t have even that tiny ray of hope in it. The movie starts with a man at an office who has been there for years, but no one recognizes his face and his good work never wins him any respect. Out of nowhere a man with his face shows up and begins to get promotion after promotion for work he put his name on but didn’t do. Then the woman that he loves asks for his help in setting up a date with his double. As he cedes more and more of his life and identity to his double, he gets closer and closer to madness. He starts off pitiful, and then as he becomes more desperate he becomes meaner, and the world he’s in is so unrelentingly indifferent to him that no one knows or cares if he’s being nice or going insane.
The Double has nice touches to it – the color scheme of the movie is eye-catching, accentuating the dilapidated industrial setting of the film to create a beautiful but unwelcoming place. The soundtrack is well curated, with an oppressive score mixing with twee novelty songs in a way that compliments the surreally funny tone the movie is going for. And the actors commit themselves well. But I can’t help but think that the movie would have been much better if there had even been one ray of light in it – one person who didn’t want to humiliate our poor protagonist, one moment of authentic self actualization, one brief interlude of legitimate beauty. As it is, it’s a little too suffocating to be enjoyable.