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20 Films About Doubles And Doppelgangers

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist March 13, 2014 at 3:10PM

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.
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Suture

Suture” (1993)
While we’re not usually fans of the style-over-substance movie, there are a few occasions in which the style more or less becomes the substance, and “Suture,” directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (the team behind last year’s underseen “What Maisie Knew”), and championed early on by Steven Soderbergh, is one such case. Shot in crisp, graphic, occasionally blinding black and white and so carefully constructed that almost every shot feels like a video art piece (a favorite moment of ours is a conversation happening across a car rooftop that is shot from a slowly sinking POV), the film also has the archest of self-aware filmic premises: the two leads play near-identical brothers, whom no one in the film can tell apart but they are portrayed by the black Dennis Haysbert and the white Michael Harris, two actors who are as facially and physically different as they are in terms of skin color. But clearly framing this fascinating idea for use as a fulcrum around which to lever open themes of identity and its social construction, Siegel and McGehee do lose that thread a little, becoming distracted, in the way of the neophyte director, by the noir plot trappings that they also include—double crossings and murders and faked deaths that unfortunately detract a little, in their complexity and also genre familiarity, from the real psychological mystery at the film’s core. Still, this is a hugely inventive arthouse film, that boasts images that have remained alive in our memory for the two decades between first watching it and now. [B+]

Adaptation

Adaptation” (2002)
Directed by Spike Jonze, and scripted by meta-master Charlie Kaufman, “Adaptation” is a multi-layered, multi-plot meta-biography about a screenwriter struggling to adapt a book. That the character is called Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) is the first of the film’s riffs on doubles and identity switches, but having Cage play identical twin brothers is the more central, with brother Donald not only less tortured and less talented than Charlie, but ironically of course, more successful. In fact Kaufman and Jonze here use the double conceit as a means to work through preoccupations with the nature of the creative process, with Charlie representing the self-doubt and insecurity of potential genius, and Donald the id-driven, easygoing, Robert McKee-following dilettante. The ultimate conclusion of course (like so many films that use doubles to explore notions of schism and duality) is that neither and both approaches are right and it is only when a synthesis of the two occurs that Charlie writes his screenplay, which may not be the one he was hired to write, but is in fact the film we’ve just been watching. Which would probably make for the simplest-ever Charlie Kaufman script if that was all there was to it, but of course he also layers in not just the story of the book, but the story of the writing of the book on which his screenplay is (now only tangentially) based. And an alligator attack. Such a complex thicket of truth vs. fiction it’s no wonder it took two of him to write it; we can only guess at the number of alter egos he had to call into being to complete his paralyzingly brilliant directorial debut “Synecdoche, NY.” [A-]

Doppelganger

Doppelganger” (1993)
Were we to follow our mom’s instruction that “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” we’d be hard pushed to fill even a quarter of our short word count on this dire Drew Barrymore vehicle, from the heyday of her “not a child star anymore actually a totally sexy bad girl” period. A horrible, terrible, just very bad plot, which ticks off about every single box there is in the sensationalist handbook in no particular order and with no particular logic (child abuse, insanity, murder, sexy dancing, blasphemy, seduction, betrayal, gratuitous nudity, gratuitous wearing of horrible backwards baseball caps) the story involves a young woman fleeing to LA after the murder of her mother, who is pursued there by her murderous double, who wears a slightly darker shade of lipstick, and is super good at lurking. Something something brother who killed their father (or did he?) something something shrink (or is he?) who turns out to be wearing her face, something something she divides into two bloody skeletons and pushes him out of a stained glass window (or does she?) (no really, she actually does). The only joy the film has to offer is in its awfulness, and judged on that matrix, the performance of Dan Shor as the FBI agent (or is he?) takes some beating, a beating that should have been reserved for whoever thought this pile of crap deserved a greenlight. [F]

Dave

Dave” (1993)
While there’s almost something of a subgenre of doubles movies detailing the replacement of a political leader with a lookalike (“The Great Dictator,” and “Kagemusha” are both elsewhere on this list, while “Moon over Parador” is another riff on same) for comedic purposes our favorite is probably this Ivan Reitman-directed, Gary Ross-scripted film starring the insanely likeable Kevin Kline and the perfectly frosty-but-thawing Sigourney Weaver. It’s wish-fulfillment nonsense, of course, a kind of fantasy vision of the decent, ordinary guy trumping the ingrained corruption and cynicism of the Washington power structure, and even winning the love of a good woman in the meantime, all while perpetrating the most outrageously undemocratic fraud on the American people, but the jokes are silly enough when they’re not sly to let the whole thing bounce along pleasantly nonetheless. And really it’s Kline’s film, and he’s so good as the sweet-natured, decent Dave, that we don’t even mind that the contrast with the philandering, lying bastard of a President he replaces (and also plays) is rather too exaggerated for comfort. Frank Langella plays the chief of staff and chief manipulator (decades before he’d get to play Manipulator-in-Chief Richard Nixon), while Ben Kingsley has a small but sympathetic role as the VP in what is mostly a hugely enjoyable frothy comedy, but one that does occasionally bare its anti-conservative fangs to good effect. [B]

Lost Highway

Lost Highway” (1997)
Much of David Lynch’s latter-day output has been concerned with doubles, shifting identities and performers conflating with their roles, so much so that both “Mulholland Drive” and “Inland Empire” could easily also figure on this list. However, we value our sanity too much to write about all three and so have chosen the first of his forays into this territory and in many ways the most frequently overlooked. For a filmmaker never exactly wedded to the notion of narrative linearity, “Lost Highway” represented the first real shot across the bow for where he’d be heading in future, and while it might not attain the same level of richness, texture and feeling that “Mulholland Drive” would, it’s still a pretty fascinating exercise in mindfuckery if you’re Lynch fans like us. Here Patricia Arquette takes on a dual role (Renee/Alice), while Bill Pullman (Fred) and Balthazar Getty (Pete) play different men who at various junctures, transform into each other. The heavily stylized, circular, noir-influenced plot involving Fred being sent to death row for the murder of his wife Renee, only to turn into Pete in his cell who is then released, and embarks on an affair with his boss’ mistress Alice, is so intricate and enigmatic that it can be frustrating for anyone looking for a more immersive experience. But from another perspective, the unusually clinical tone Lynch brings to bear here is also appropriate for what is mostly a cerebral exercise in genre deconstruction, and a clever one, if you’re willing to invest. [B-]

This article is related to: Features, Enemy, Jake Gyllenhaal, The Double, Feature, Denis Villeneuve, Brian De Palma, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Duncan Jones, Steven Soderbergh, Roman Polanski, Charlie Chaplin, Darren Aronofsky, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Christopher Nolan, Krzysztof Kieslowski


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