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TIFF 2013: 'The Double' deals with identity challenges

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With more than 300 movies showing at the Toronto International Film Festival, there is bound to be some overlap. Jesse Eisenberg acts in two films world premiering at the Canadian event, while Mia Wasikowska performs in three screening there. But the multiplicities are especially manifold for their movie "The Double," director Richard Ayoade's examination of the horror of encountering your better self.

A loose adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoevsky novella first published in 1846, "The Double" stars Eisenberg in a dual role in a tale of identity, paranoia and the relentless grip of self-loathing. The movie itself also has something of a twin at the festival — "Enemy," starring Jake Gyllenhaal, covers similar ground.

Having its world premiere Saturday night, "The Double" was co-written by Ayoade and Avi Korine and centers on Simon (Eisenberg), a low-level paper-pusher in an office of uncertain purpose. His attempts to be considered for a promotion have long gone unnoticed. When a new co-worker named James (also Eisenberg) arrives, only Simon seems to notice they look exactly alike. James has all the charm and charisma that Simon lacks, and even makes a play for Hannah (Wasikowska), the co-worker and neighbor Simon secretly has a crush on.

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"It's a deep abiding terror of mine, somebody just like you but slightly better-looking and smarter," said Korine in a phone call from his home in Nashville. "I always get this horrible feeling when I see someone who looks like me."

Ayoade may be most recognizable to American audiences for his politely mannered performance in last year's Ben Stiller comedy "The Watch," but he's also known for his role on the British sitcom "The IT Crowd." His feature film debut as writer-director, the bittersweet coming-of-age romance "Submarine," premiered at Toronto in 2010.

"The Double," though, originated with Korine, younger brother of "Spring Breakers" filmmaker Harmony Korine. Avi Korine had started work on an adaptation and eventually gave his script to producers Robin C. Fox and Amina Dasmal. They in turn introduced Korine and Ayoade. The two then worked on subsequent drafts both alone and together, shaping the film's claustrophobic tone and disturbingly banal world into something that manages to be funny and bleak at the same time.

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Ayoade likened the frequent absurdity in the literature of Dostoevsky (and also writers such as Nikolai Gogol and Franz Kafka) to the work of contemporary comedian Larry David — full of acute awareness of the minor humiliations and incidental confrontations of daily life. What he particularly liked in "The Double," he said, was how the story takes "something that's ordinarily frightening and gothic and slightly overblown but brings it into something normal and everyday. It's also about how no one else is concerned with the things that greatly concern you."

Describing "The Double" as a blend of a science-fiction and a horror film, Ayoade said he sought to give the movie the feeling of a myth or fable. Reteaming with "Submarine" cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson, Ayoade shot the film on 35mm in a disused office park a short ways outside London.

Korine originally set the story in a modern metropolis, but Ayoade brought the idea of a slightly outdated future — a place not of Space Age sleekness but ducts and exposed wires. Production designer David Crank, who has also worked on films for Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick, created a timeless, hard-to-place otherworld, and the look and feel of "The Double" will likely remind viewers of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" for its similarly strange technology and strangulating atmosphere.

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Ahead of his film's premiere, Ayoade was steeling himself for the comparisons.

"When I did 'Submarine,' I knew 'Rushmore' would be talked about in relation to it, it's one of those films you mention," he said. "In some respects 'Brazil' was the film we were trying not to be like, in terms of scale. To me it's a big film, a big canvas film in many ways. Where this is a very small world, more claustrophobic.

"Even when we were filming, whenever we got too wide angle on the lens we just went, 'Oh, "Brazil,"'" Ayoade said. "He's great, Terry Gilliam, but that wasn't the intention to go into something slightly more grotesque."

Besides the lead roles of Eisenberg and Wasikowska, the cast is filled out by faces familiar from "Submarine," with appearances by Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor and Paddy Considine. As well, there are character actors Wallace Shawn and Cathy Moriarty, who bring with them a matrix of references that include "My Dinner With Andre" and "Raging Bull." The casting of actor James Fox would in turn seem a reference to his roles in the identity transference landmark "Performance" as well as the power-struggle story "The Servant," were he not also Ayoade's father-in-law.

Ayoade said Eisenberg was especially good with the technical processes needed to create the film's double effect, where the actor was asked to perform scenes twice as his different characters. While the technology of motion control cameras has gotten much better since the days of David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers," he noted that the process is still a slow one.

"We felt like if that's how you would film it with two people, well this is how we should film it," said Ayoade, "and work out the techno-craft to make sure it's appropriate for the film, rather than do shots because they were technically the best way of doing it. So we made it more difficult for ourselves by not worrying about the technology.

"It certainly has special effects but the idea was for it never to look like a special-effects film," he said.

Neither Korine nor Ayoade are yet aware of the other double movie playing at Toronto, Dennis Villeneuve's "Enemy." Starring Gyllenhaal in two roles and based on the Spanish writer José Saramago's own "The Double," the movie is about a history professor who spies his doppelgänger in a movie and decides to track the other man down.

"That's good," said Ayoade of having two similar movies premiering at the same time. "It can be like 'Deep Impact' and 'Armageddon.'"

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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