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“Oh do not believe in the unity of men,” Patricia Highsmith, then a 26-year-old budding novelist, wrote in her journal, in 1947. The words belonged to her hero Fyodor Dostoevsky but it was a view Highsmith had reached on her own and it became the central idea in the novel she was working on, a story about two murderous men called Strangers on a Train.
Barely a year after it was published, it was memorably adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, who was drawn to the story not only by its suspenseful plot but also by its exploration of psychological duality. (“Two people in each person,” as one of Highsmith’s murderers puts it.) Hitchcock, though, was not alone in his fascination with the double: it is a theme that has regularly attracted film-makers, as a spate of current releases shows.
One of them, indeed, is drawn from another Highsmith novel: The Two Faces of January, out in the UK next week, is directed as well as scripted by Hossein Amini, previously best-known as the writer of Drive. It follows hard on the heels of Richard Ayoade’s film The Double, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel, and Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (currently out in the US), based on a novel by José Saramago also called The Double.
All three are evidence of film-makers’ fascination with doubleness; they also reveal the trouble that cinema has with it.
Cinema was born at the end of the 19th century, during what Karl Miller, an expert on the double in literature, has called “duality’s heyday”, when Dr Jekyll invented Mr Hyde and Dorian Gray had his portrait painted. The young visual medium quickly adopted this most visual of literary themes, and the doppelgänger film has become a significant sub-genre, especially if you include stories of twins (David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers) and impersonators (Hitchcock’s Vertigo).
The problem is that while cinema may be equipped to duplicate actors, it is not always good at exploring the human mind. In the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde, as in the earlier Romantic writing of Shelley and ETA Hoffmann, the double is a manifestation of something repressed, unrecognised, or unexplored. To give this phantom a bluntly physical form risks reducing a symbol to a visual trick – and severing the doppelgänger from the ideas about selfhood that made him such a potent figure in the first place.
Ayoade’s film is a striking example of cinema addressing, and bludgeoning, this essentially literary theme. In the Dostoevsky novel, Golyadkin’s double is, in part, a manifestation of the proud, aspirational side that Golyadkin cannot acknowledge in himself, whereas in Ayoade’s comic version Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a well-meaning loser, and James Simon (ditto) is callous and charismatic.
Sylvia Plath, in her undergraduate thesis on Dostoevsky’s doubles, argued that by giving his corrupt urges to a double the “schizophrenic” relieves himself of guilt; but, instead of one “schizophrenic”, Ayoade gives us a pair of types. And Villeneuve’s take on Saramago is similarly short on nuance. A history teacher (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovers that there’s an actor living nearby who shares his face, his beard, his scars . . . but because we don’t know much about the teacher, we can’t tell what it might mean.
Ayoade’s film is highly diverting, Villeneuve’s deeply unsettling, but they confirm the sense that the double in cinema is more a plot device than an area of inquiry. What matters in these films is not psychological causes but narrative consequences.
The challenges of granting the doppelgänger visible form while preserving his symbolic function may explain why savvier film-makers have often gravitated towards Highsmith. Although a disciple of Dostoevsky, Highsmith refrained from using literal doppelgängers, preferring to create two male characters with unexpected areas of overlap.
“Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved”, we read of Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train. There’s a similar dynamic at play with Tom and Dickie in The Talented Mr Ripley, which has been adapted by René Clément (as Plein Soleil) and Anthony Minghella.
Highsmith’s 1964 The Two Faces of January takes place in, yes, January, the month named after Janus, the god of two faces, to denote its backwards and forwards gaze. Amini, in adapting the book, has played down the double theme somewhat: he has borrowed Highsmith’s escape plot and love triangle but to some extent relinquished the psychology underpinning them.
In Highsmith’s telling, the young American Rydal (Oscar Isaac in the screen version) comes to the aid of the shady stranger Chester (Viggo Mortensen) because of his resemblance to Rydal’s recently dead father – a detail played down in the film. Gone, too, is the resemblance between Chester’s wife (Kirsten Dunst) and Rydal’s cousin, a girl he was once accused of raping.
Perhaps doubleness works better on film as a background theme or loose structuring principle. The man played by Tom Hardy in Steven Knight’s one-set drama Locke has spent his life resisting the example of his feckless father but finds himself reverting to family type when drunk – drunkenness being a courier of doubleness because it releases a shadow self.
In the blockbuster The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film full of counterparts and alter egos, Harry Osborn, Peter Parker’s best friend – played by Dane DeHaan, brilliant as the boy who emulates his dead father in The Place Beyond the Pines – must not only resist repeating his father’s corrupt management of the company OsCorp, he must also fight off the disease, genetic and symbolic, that is his true inheritance.
“I don’t want to end up like my father,” Harry tells Peter, referring to his father’s painful death but really meaning the wasted life he fears that he will replicate.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Locke may seem unlikely bedfellows, opposites rather than doubles, but together they reveal the power that doubleness is able to achieve – when it is exploited for its symbolic associations and detached from the idea of the doppelgänger.
‘Locke’, ‘The Double’ and ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ are on general release in the UK. ‘The Two Faces of January’ will be out next week. ‘Enemy’ is on release in the US and will be released in the UK later this year