What's With All the Movies About Doppelgängers?

Three new films about identical strangers may reflect the Internet-age anxiety over curating cooler online versions of ourselves.
Magnolia Pictures; IFC Films; E1 Films

During the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a meme emerged in which Olympians were matched up with their celebrity doppelgängers. All over Facebook, people shared, posted, reacted with surprise: Wow! It’s so uncanny! Look how similar they are! 

Let’s be honest: That’s barely news. The Sochi meme was just the latest incarnation of the new sport of Internet-facilitated doppelgänger hunting. Thanks to our new interconnectedness and fancy software made cheap, it’s easy to find your own doppelgänger. The website ilooklikeyou.com says it’s “uniting the world one face at a time.” Another one, findmydoppelganger.com, uses facial-recognition software to match your face to a celebrity’s. And for a few years, the first week of February has been Facebook’s “celebrity doppelgänger week”—basically, you switch out your profile picture for that famous person who sort of looks like you but with better hair.

Our active pursuit of our own doppelgängers, though, would strike many throughout history as odd, if not suicidal: Encountering your match has long been considered a harbinger of death, or at least very bad luck. We all have a double in the world, the mythology goes, and most of us will never meet that person. But if we do, the universe only has space for one. There will be a struggle, and someone will win. 

This spring, three movies about doppelgängers will hit cinemas; two of them will deal with that very struggle between character and double. Clearly, doppelgängers have entered pop culture’s consciousness, now, too, and perhaps the interest in doppelgänger stories results from the fact that today, we’ve all got a doppelgänger—one of our own creation.

Enemy, a psychosexual nightmare fairly dripping with dread, will arrive in some theaters on Friday. Director Dennis Villeneuve’s thriller tells the story of sad-sack history professor Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who discovers one night that he has a doppelgänger, a D-list actor who's done some bit parts in locally made movies. He tracks down the man, Anthony (also Gyllenhaal), who's not just similar to but exactly the same as Adam. Both men even have the same scar on their chests. Their only physical difference is Anthony’s penchant for and Adam’s revulsion toward blueberries. 

Adam’s girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) fails to interest him, besides some passionless screwing every evening. But she catches the eye of Anthony, who has a pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) but decides he can probably get Adam's girlfriend to sleep with him as well, since she won't notice the difference. And as the two men's lives begin to overlap, the danger mounts.

Enemy is based on José Saramago's novel The Double, which makes it doubly strange that a film called The Double—this one based on the Dostoevsky novella that's also named The Double—is showing at New Directors/New Films on March 24 and releasing to theaters May 9. In this movie, directed by Richard Ayoade (who directed Submarine and also plays Moss on The IT Crowd), Jesse Eisenberg is Simon, a hapless data processor living in a depressing apartment complex. He spends his days drearily attempting to get the attention of the pretty girl (Mia Wasikowska) who works in the copy room at his building. 

The morning after he witnesses a man jump to his death from a ledge across the way, Simon is startled to discover that his employer has hired James (also Eisenberg), who is his exact double. But while Simon is nervous, awkward, and depressed, James is charming. Predictably, it all comes back to the girl, whom James woos on Simon's behalf. But things, of course, take a dark turn.

The Double is a Kafkaesque black comedy that traffics in metaphor, whereas Enemy is more sinister and straight-faced, with a head-scratcher of a framing device involving an underground sex club and a giant tarantula that hovers over a smoggy Toronto. But the two films are more alike than not. Their empty, unfulfilled protagonists are confronted by their worst nightmare: an exact copy of themselves, except more sophisticated, more passionate, more likable, and very interested in taking what’s not exactly theirs. 

Presented by

Alissa Wilkinson is chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at the King’s College in New York.

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