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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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Dead Ringers

Dead Ringers” (1988)
Identical twins have been a staple of storytelling since Shakespearean times (viz the hi-jinks of “The Comedy of Errors” and “Twelfth Night”) right up to the modern soap opera trope of bringing back a popular actor after his character has died via this handy twist. But what makes this Cronenberg film a necessary inclusion here is not the twin aspect as much as where the director, with his trademark chilly cerebrality, brings it—into the realm of blurred identity and fragmenting/coalescing personality, the realm of the double. (“The Parent Trap” it ain’t). In some ways the apotheosis of Cronenberg’s detached style married to the most sordid of material, here Jeremy Irons plays the twins, both gynecologists, which frankly is already the oogiest of concepts, even before they are revealed to be pulling frequent switcheroos on sexual partners and devolving into hallucinatory insanity (the “gynecological instruments for operating on mutant women” have to be among the most disturbing props ever developed for a movie). Their sickening symbiotic relationship, which becomes ever more destructive when tainted with their involvement with a certain woman (Genevieve Bujold, appearing for the second time on this list) should really be the stuff of potboiler melodrama, but Cronenberg’s tight icy tonal control makes this far more insidious than its salacious logline might suggest, delivering a seedy plot that somehow reeks not of blood and gore, but of antiseptic. And we love the smell of antiseptic. [B+]

Obsession

“Obsession” (1976)
With "Obsession," De Palma and screenwriter Paul Schrader went to work reconfiguring "Vertigo" as an expansive, generational Southern Gothic thriller, full of murder, intrigue and possible incest. When Cliff Robertson's wife and small child are killed during a botched kidnapping, he becomes riddled with guilt, but twenty years later, something miraculous occurs when he encounters a woman who could be the exact double for his dead wife (played by the same actress, Genevieve Bujold). He falls in love with her, but falls victim to a kidnapping plot eerily reminiscent of the original operation that got his wife and child killed. (In Schrader's insane original draft, there was a third section where the events were replayed yet again, set in the near future.) While De Palma's original version pushed foregrounded the big twist more (SPOILER the new woman Robertson has fallen in love with is in fact his daughter) the released version was tempered by the implication that the incest angle was a dream. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense but it certainly fits in with the movie's diffused, dreamlike aesthetic (achieved mostly by Vilmos Zsigmond's hazy cinematography and Bernard Herrmann's sweepingly romantic score), and got a film with an incest plot a PG rating. The doubles in "Obsession" are the very literal representation of the sins of the past being revisited in the present, and they act as a shorthand to connect De Palma's work with Hitchcock's masterful original. While it frequently gets overlooked, "Obsession" is a solid entry in De Palma's canon, where it's hard to figure out what is real and what is just dark ink on the mirror. [B]

Black Swan

Black Swan” (2010)
For all of its hallucinatory imagery and jarring narrative turns, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan” concentrates a swath of clichés into a very direct result; it’s an exploration of untethered mental illness on the level of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion”—if all the ambiguity of that film dissolved and you were left with Catherine Deneuve shrieking its themes to the world. But Aronofsky’s thriller still ultimately succeeds because of how intensely, and masterfully, it presents its gothic conventions: the haunted heroine (Natalie Portman’s ballerina Nina Sayers), the parasitic mother (Barbara Hershey), and of course, the doppelganger. Mila Kunis enters the picture early on as Lily, the professional rival to Nina and her committed dance career, and that she may serve as Nina’s darker half—liberated, impulsive, predatory—is no narrative secret to Aronofsky. As Lily slowly infects Nina with paranoia, desire, and an even greater need to attain perfection, the director utilizes every reflective surface around to convey Nina’s repressed emotions, now externalized in front of her. The visceral nature of Aronofsky’s filmmaking, coupled with Clint Mansell’s driving classical score, renders Nina’s gradual transformation as grand, grotesque and (thankfully) occasionally humorous; it's Portman’s committed performance that makes it intimate and tragic. [B]

Possession

Possession” (1981)
Andrzej Żuławski's wild, mad, horrifying 1981 psychological horror monstrosity, is actually a film with double doubles: Isabelle Adjani plays Anna and Helen, inexplicably identical-looking women both involved with Sam Neill's character, who himself is confronted with his mirror image by the end of the movie, but not before a copious amount of psychosis, betrayal, bloodletting and remarkably graphic sex with tentacled entities of uncertain and unsettling extraction: describing the plot as such is a slightly pointless exercise, since this is mostly an exercise in mood, atmosphere and psychological evocation. A French production, it really owes more to Żuławski's native Poland and is set in Cold War-era Berlin: it's a very Eastern European story of spies, paranoia, and nameless, grinding dreads, like the demented, tentacled lovechild of Kafka and le Carre. That Eastern bloc bleakness comes out too in the colours, washed-out greys and blues providing the background to numerous sprays of appallingly vivid blood. “Possession” is unusual too for achieving one other, rare act of doubling: it is both a highly effective piece of psychological, mental horror and an incredibly powerful instance of visceral, physical horror. Few film-makers before or since have crossed that divide as well as Żuławski, and so he can be forgiven for the fact that the film is more or less constantly overblown and overplayed, and frequently tends towards absurdity: it's more effective that way. [B+]

Schizopolis

“Schizopolis” (1996)
The film that saved Steven Soderbergh’s career—the filmmaker had been increasingly frustrated with his work followingSex Lies & Videotape,” and went on to his greatest successes after this palate-cleanser—“Schizopolis” was the most idiosyncratic and experimental film by Soderbergh up to that point. Financed pretty much entirely by the director, the project also stars Soderbergh himself as both office drone Fletcher Munson, who works for an L. Ron Hubbard-type guru, and Dr. Jeffrey Korchek, a dentist who’s having an affair with Munson’s wife (played by Soderbergh’s own ex-wife Betsy Brantley). We don’t really want to give the impression that the film has an actual plot—it’s a digressive, restless piece of work, playful yet academic, and obsessed with language over and above anything else (the first section sees the Munsons speak entirely in descriptions (“Generic greeting.”/”Generic greeting returned”), while the third act replays some of the action in Japanese or French. As such, the doubling plays a relatively small part of the whole, but it’s still fascinating to see in action, in part because of the way it’s layered in throughout (Mrs. Munson also gets her own double, who Korchek also falls for), and partly because the way those doubles are cast: by playing the doubles himself, Soderbergh seems to be digging into the duality of man, and himself, even more explicitly than others in the genre. [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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