In a culture of cellphone-snapped selfies it’s hard to imagine a time when people might have been afraid of their own image. But Facebook walls and Instagram feeds to the contrary, for the vastly longer portion of human history, to see a perfect replica of yourself was an uncanny event, impossible even, exemplified by the belief shared by some native tribes in the early days of photography, that it could take away your soul. Or perhaps they were just being super cautious about ownership of their brand image.
Whatever the case, there’s a broad term given to the phenomenon—which, like all the best terminology is a loan word from German—doppelganger theory, which haunts this week’s release, Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” (our stellar TIFF review here) as thoroughly as it did the José Saramago source novel. Because while occasionally the doppleganger can be of a mischievous or trickster-ish bent, more often seeing one’s own double is a fearful experience, sometimes even the harbinger of death. With such mythic roots, and such a close correlation to the facsimiles that the technology of cinema could produce, it’s perhaps no wonder that the filmic tradition of the doppelganger is so long and so varied. Plus it seems to be experiencing a zeitgeist-y moment right now: after “Enemy,” Richard Ayoade’s equally worthwhile “The Double” starring Jesse Eisenberg will open in a month or so too.
In fact, we were hard pushed to keep this list in any way manageable, and so we really just went with gut instinct on what we did and did not include. So while we attempted to make our selection as eclectic as the canon warrants, really it's the thematic resonance of doppelganger theory that we remain most fascinated by: the powerful, occasionally philosophical questions it can raise about the nature of identity, the soul and how important it is to our sense of ourselves not just to be human, not just to be important, but to be unique. Here are 20 films good and bad, that comically, dramatically or most often, spookily contend with those ideas.
The canonization of Hitchcock's classic as Sight and Sound's "Greatest Film of All Time" (after it tipped Welles' "Citizen Kane" off that particular belfry in 2013) makes it easy to forget just what a deeply fucked-up, fabulously twisted film it really is. Often judged the director’s most personal film, it casts the ultimate cinematic everyman, James Stewart, as the broken, ossifying, resolutely un-heroic Scotty (let’s not forget he fails to save three different people from falling to their deaths over the course of the film). He only connects to the world through a twisted obsession with a woman who is herself not real (she’s a creation designed to entice and intrigue him), and after her death, he happens on her double, and devolves into a monster of control and a slave to his own worst nature (man, does this film writhe around gloriously in the darkest recesses of the psyche). Almost too noir for noir, it is also of course, the ultimate double film, as Scotty goes about remaking Madeleine (Kim Novak, whose slight self-consciousness as an actress works brilliantly here in never letting us forget the schism between Judy and “Madeleine” and even between “Madeleine” and the real victim of the original plot). Perhaps the most brilliant twist of all in this bold film, though, is Hitchcock's establishment of a tone of creeping dread, which he does so skillfully that even when we discover the mystery does not have the supernatural aspect that's been teased for so long, we're so far down the rabbit hole of Scotty's perverse psychology that we're pretty much haunted anyway. [A+]
"The Double Life of Véronique" (1991)
If the double/doppelgänger genre often comes chock-a-block with creepy, psychological horror overtones exploring identity, the struggle for sanity, and similar mindfuck terrors, then Krzysztof Kieslowski's take is the polar opposite. Like Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (and to lesser extent, the remake), Kieslowski's investigation of duality has a much more metaphysical, spiritual and existential bent (much like most of his oeuvre). Without ever using sci-fi or genre tropes, the Polish filmmaker was always consumed with the mysteries of the universe and intuitive human nature—such as the uncanny sensation behind things like déjà vu--and ‘Veronique’ was no different. His beautiful muse Irène Jacob (who would also star in his final opus “Red”), plays the roles of two women irresolvably, but mysteriously connected, who only briefly interact. One is Weronika, a young Polish singer who dies suddenly, shortly after seeing her doppelganger in a Krakow square. Her double is Véronique, a French music teacher just as suddenly consumed by a crushing existential sadness, that the movie suggests is the unconscious grief she feels when her other half dies. Rhythmically enigmatic, gorgeously elusive and deeply sensual, underneath all the expressive mood, lies a deeply moving and thought-provoking picture. And like all Kieslowski films, the movie doesn't spell out any of its intentions but leaves the viewer with a wonderfully shimmering and poetic suggestion of the obscure interiors of a human being. A beautiful and hypnotic fable about love, humanity and the self, "The Double Life of Véronique" is one of Kieslowski’s many masterworks about the mystical human unconscious. [A]
“The Prestige” (2006)
If you thought “Inception” was a mindfuck, Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” might just have it beat, in a labyrinthine tale of rival magicians and the desperate lengths both will go to for a trick. Based on the terrific Christopher Priest novel of the same name (even having read the book, it took us a couple of go-rounds with the movie to untangle its phantasmagorically complex plot) the film positively teems with doubles and doppelgangers until a final reveal that is, in fact, less intriguing than some of the other twists that have happened along the way. Specifically, the machine built by Nikola Tesla (David Bowie in some of the most “yes, please!” casting ever) to enable The Great Danton (Hugh Jackman) to emulate The Professor’s (Christian Bale) “Transported Man” trick where he disappears and reappears instantaneously on the other side of the stage. While each man has his own double subplot, perhaps the most interesting meta-theme is how these great rivals mirror each other too, especially reflected in their obsessive but callous relationships with their wives and lovers (Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson). Rich in period detail, beautifully shot and played, the film does attempt too many somersaults to stick the landing, and some of its themes may be lost as we struggle to figure out which version of who did what, but it’s still a wonderfully layered puzzle-box of a film, with a sci-fi twist that gives it an uncanny tone that is totally faithful to the creepiness of the novel, and yet uniquely Nolan too. [B+]
“The Man Who Haunted Himself” (1970)
A prime example of a doppelganger film that gets so entangled in its premise that it has a hard time finding a way out, this Roger Moore curio, directed by prolific British director Basil Dearden has maybe more to recommend it these days for Moore fans (to whom this trailer certainly seems to play), and as a time capsule for its well-shot London locations. As an actual story, however, it scarcely hangs together: a stiff, respectable family man dies briefly but is then revived only to eventually realize, via a whole lot of “but I saw you yesterday!” “No, you didn’t!”-type encounters that he is being dogged by a double. Not only that, but as he increasingly goes to pieces, the double only ever seems to become more urbane and suave (and with Moore involved, our suav-O-meter needle was off the dial at times), boasting a hot girlfriend and a flash car and a knack for at snooker. The pacing is draggy, and the acting, outside of Moore who is game, is poor, but there is enough late-sixties brio to the way the film is put together (lots of red filters and extreme close-ups to denote fragmenting states of mind) to make it diverting enough. Just don’t expect a denoument that properly answers the madness vs. physical double conundrum in anything like a satisfying way. [C]
"Femme Fatale" (2002)
Doubles dot the De Palma filmography liberally, (as well as “Obsession” which is on this list, there’s “Body Double,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Raising Cain” and even “Mission: Impossible” has those masks), and he has been known to use them to halfway decent effect, allowing him to channel his Hitchcockian impulses into salacious stories of splintered identities. “Femme Fatale,” however, is not one of those times, with the doppelganger here functioning as a uselessly contrived plot point in an already overstretched narrative that [spoiler alert] mostly turns out to have been a dream anyway. Betraying her team after an involved jewel heist at the Cannes Film Festival, the sexy Laure (Rebecca Romijn) goes into sexy hiding but is mistaken for another sexy woman, who conveniently commits suicide, leaving a passport and a plane ticket outta here. All is well until years later she returns to Paris, now married and monied, and her old gang picks up her trail once more. And then the huge eyerolling twist happens and we’re back to nearly square one on the whole thing before some equally implausible stuff happens and the film decides to end. Contrary to De Palma apologists who insist this is all terribly knowing and therefore great fun, to us the film’s outright blithering silliness just comes across as disrespectful of its audience’s brain, though we'll admit that Rebecca Romijn’s striptease remains a classic of that dubious canon. [D+/C-]