Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Double (2013) and the Uncanny

Freud describes the uncanny as a special kind of fear; it “is that class of terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” Whereas we are usually frightened by what is unknown and unfamiliar to us, we experience the uncanny when we are startled by something from the past that had been pushed out of conscious recollection. There are many things that one desires when still a child, but which provoke fear as an adult. The seeds of the uncanny lie anywhere there is an object that we once, as children, associated with joy but which we later, as mature adolescents and adults, associate with fear and loathing.

Consider how many adults are afraid of clowns. (It is interesting to note that there are no adults who like clowns. People who didn’t like clowns as children continue not to like them as adults; those who adored them as children experience uncanny horror as adults.) For a child so inclined, clowns are objects of wonderment and fantasy. When the child matures, she realizes that clowns are just ordinary human beings wearing costumes, and she starts to feel ambivalent about them. The desire for clowns does not ever go away completely, though. It has to be pushed violently down into the unconscious mind, and a great deal of “psychic energy” must be expended in order to keep it there. The conscious mind or Ego begins to develop a fear of the repressed former object of desire, and the sight or mention of clowns is enough to instill uncanny horror. Thus, the uncanny is tightly wrapped up in a crucial and sometimes traumatic emotional turning point in any child’s life, the moment when the child realizes that the world is not a magical place with things like talking dolls, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy. This event in many ways sounds the death knell of the child and ushers in the age of the adolescent; it’s no wonder it should cause so much fear and trepidation!

Richard Ayoade’s 2014 black comedy The Double is about the uncanny experiences of Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), a shy and lonely clerk working in human resources. Simon is hopelessly and secretly in love with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who works in a different department of the same company. Every evening Simon sits alone in his apartment and, using a telescope, spies on Hannah in her equally lonely apartment. One night, Simon sees a man standing on a ledge high up near Hannah’s apartment and looking back at him through binoculars. The man waves, Simon waves back, and then the man jumps to his death. The gruesome scene on the street below attracts a crowd, providing the first-ever opportunity for Hannah and Simon to interact outside of their workplace. The two go out to a diner for a late-night cup of coffee and become friends. Simon at first mistakes this friendship for romantic interest, but the arrival to the company of a new hire, James (also Jesse Eisenberg) sets him straight. James is everything Simon is not – charming, assertive, and virile. One very important similarity exists, however: They look exactly the same.

When, one evening, Hannah confides in her just-a-friend Simon that she “likes” James, Simon experiences painful humiliation and despair. He tells James about it, and surprisingly James wants to help. James maps out a plan whereby Simon will pretend to be James and go on a date with Hannah. The facial resemblance, James admits, is uncanny, but their personality types could not be more different. Therefore Simon must act like James. (In po-mo identity theory terminology, Simon has to do being James.) The plan naturally goes south due to Simon’s insurmountable cringy awkwardness, and Hannah stares back at him in knowing, angry silence until he leaves. By and by, James sees Simon as beyond help, and he takes advantage of Simon’s meekness instead of trying to reform it. While James sneaks off for mid-workday trysts with Hannah, Simon covers his workstation, producing brilliant work for which James earns all of the credit. James also demands the key to Simon’s apartment, which Simon uses to hide his other romantic affairs from Hannah. As James encroaches more and more upon Simon’s identity and sense of individuality, Simon discovers that their bodies have become causally linked; if Simon cuts himself, an identical wound appears on James’ body. At last, Simon has the epiphany that he needs in order to eliminate James: If he jumps off a building into some sort of cushion, then he will survive whereas James will be thrown against hard ground at terminal velocity.

Why is James so uncanny for Simon? There is of course the striking physical resemblance, but what does this have to do with the return of repressed childhood desires as outlined by Freud? The answer to this question arrives when we investigate why Simon sees himself in James. As the film makes clear, no one other than Simon (and James) really notices that the two look alike; therefore, in order to make the connection, there must be something else that Simon sees in James which reminds him of himself. Taking a deeper look at the film, there is indeed a repressed childhood desire of the type discussed by Freud. At various points throughout the movie, Simon sits fixated on a TV screen, watching a series about a space cowboy with childlike awe. The space invader stands up for justice, fights evildoers, and wins the affection of beautiful women. The space cowboy is Simon’s ideal self, the person he wants to become. But life got in the way: His father is apparently dead or out of the picture, his mother is dying with dementia, and he has to work a dead-end job to pay the bills. Simon pushed his desire to be like the space cowboy aside and instead shouldered the burdens of “real life.” But this fantasy never went away entirely, and when James shows up one day, Simon is reminded of his repressed ideal self. As the story develops, it becomes more and more clear that James is not a separate individual, but rather a projection of Simon’s own psychological crises.

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