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.
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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. 

There’s even a third doppelgänger film, The Face of Love (in limited release on March 7), which features Annette Bening as a woman bereft of her beloved husband (Ed Harris). Five years after his death, she spots his exact double in the courtyard at an art museum. She tracks him down and starts dating him. The new relationship seems to be filling the space left by her husband, but she's afraid to tell her new love the real reason she's so interested. Clearly, that can't last.

This recent fascination with doppelgängers and doubles may be a side effect of the Internet age. Three years ago in The New York Times, Jenna Wortham wrote about FOMO, or fear of missing out, and how it’s perpetuated by social media: 

A friend who works in advertising told me that she felt fine about her life—until she opened Facebook. “Then I’m thinking, ‘I am 28, with three roommates, and oh, it looks like you have a precious baby and a mortgage,’ she said. ‘And then I wanna die.’

On those occasions, she said, her knee-jerk reaction is to often post an account of a cool thing she has done, or to upload a particularly fun picture from her weekend. This may make her feel better—but it can generate FOMO in another unsuspecting person.

In the article, Wortham quotes Caterina Fake, Flickr’s co-founder, who says that while FOMO is nothing new, it used to be something that we encountered in holiday letters and in party pictures. But today, “instead of receiving occasional polite updates, we get reminders around the clock, mainlined via the device of our choosing.”

That mainlined update on everyone else’s life, I think, taps into the root of our newfound doppelgänger obsession and fear. Many of us are afraid that we’re simply not enough as we are—that we’re not cool enough, pretty enough, passionate enough, or interesting enough, so, as Mindy Kaling would have it, everyone is hanging out without us. 

Worse, those whom we wish would love us might prefer us if we were better, cooler, more likable—in other words, another version of ourselves. Our better double.

In the movies, of course, what makes the idea of encountering a doppelgänger terrifying is that it comes from nowhere—it's a surprise. Jake Gyllenhaal sees himself in the background of a movie; Jesse Eisenberg looks across the room, and there he is—himself, but not himself. In real life, though, it seems we go on the offensive to stave off this terror: We create our own doppelgängers. We post that status update, curate that Instagram feed, and construct a cooler version of ourselves. 

That's hardly something new—humans have always projected a self to look better in front of others. But the Internet is making it much easier—and more attractive—to create a double. 

The familiarity many of us feel today toward the phenomenon of the self-created doppelgänger actually winds up crippling both Enemy and The Double. Both films ask the audience to feel their protagonists' terror, to believe the situation isn’t just startling or uncanny, but downright horrifying. But that feeling never really takes off—perhaps because today, our doubles are not just something we seek out, but something we create ourselves. What’s the big deal?

Nevertheless, in these films, the central struggle between the doubles raises an important question: Who is the real one, and who’s just the paranormal fake? If applied to real life, that question is something more like, Is my Facebook self me? 

Doppelgänger hunting, as Internet obsessions go, is a harmless pursuit. But many of us are more aware than ever these days that we’re making our own doubles. And perhaps that mythological danger, that harbinger of doom, hasn’t disappeared after all: There’s an all-too-real possibility that if I get too good at projecting my Internet doppelgänger, I might just kill off the “real” me.

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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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