“Harris, that new employee,” hisses Jesse Eisbenberg, as the socially awkward office worker Simon James in Richard Ayoade’s new film The Double. “Does he remind you of anyone?”
Harris points at a familiar-looking fellow, charming his colleagues.
“Who did you have in mind?” Harris asks blankly.
“ Me!” shrieks Simon. “Me!”
The idea of a doppelganger – it translates from German as ‘double walker’ – appears many times in cinema, with some directors, notably Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and Brian de Palma, returning to it again and again. It, in turn, is borrowed from literature – Ayoade’s The Double is freely adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella of the same name, in which a Russian clerk goes mad when confronted with his own dead ringer.
This year cinema audiences will be seeing doppelgangers in duplicate – if not in triplicate. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s thriller Enemyis also adapted from a book called The Double, this time from the 2002 novel by José Saramago. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a history professor, who encounters an actor who is his exact replica, right down to the scars on his body – and he wants Gyllenhaal’s girlfriend. And Annette Benning and Ed Harris star in The Face of Love, about a widow who dates an exact lookalike of her dead husband, confusing reality along the way. Doubles are a serious business; only Richard Ayoade’s film manages to take on a dark, dystopian humour.
“I’m drawing on the idea that everyone in the world is supposed to have an exact replica of themselves somewhere out there, but with any luck you’ll never meet them,” says British director Ayoade, an actor in hit British TV series The IT Crowd and the maker of the coming-of-age comedy Submarine.
“When you do, as in Simon’s case, it’s everyone’s fear that their double will be wittier, more intelligent, more charming then you are – and that they might want what you already have.
“And when Simon’s expressing concern at having a double, I find it very funny that no one seems to be bothered, or even have noticed. Our big fears are not the fears of others.”
“Traditionally, in film, as in literature, the doppelganger is the harbinger of doom,” explains David Hall, the editor of online film magazine Verite. “It comes from folkloric myth that it’s an evil force with no shadow or reflection. The superstition is that to be confronted with your own image in another being will seal your fate, so stories about doubles inevitably don’t end well.
“The first time you really see the idea of the double on screen was in the 1913 German silent movie, The Student of Prague, which appropriately enough for a movie about a double, was remade at least twice. It’s about an impoverished student who makes a pact to become rich and whose reflected image commits murders, which of course get blamed upon him.
“But then cinema also has presented the Jekyll and Hyde concept of the doppelganger as an evil inverted version of one’s self.”
It’s this idea, of “the Darth Vader lurking in all of us,” as Ayoade has phrased it, that informs his filmThe Double. “There is a literal story in there but it’s also a fable,” Ayoade says. “Does Simon’s double James really exist, or is it just psychological? Could he just be a manifestation of what’s inside Simon, and doesn’t want to face? That’s what the idea of one’s double means to me – the potential evil inside us all.”
“You can see why writers love the idea, but there’s a lot of potential for silliness if the story isn’t fully realised,” says David Hall. “Just having a strong character with a double or dual identity isn’t always enough to carry a film through. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) remains a classic of the genre; Brian de Palma borrowed heavily from it for his own films, including Body Double (1984) but that’s more great fun than great cinema .
“It’s hard to do well even if you’re a great director, because it’s so easy to get carried away in metaphor with doppelgangers. David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) is a major example of this, when the main character just morphs without warning into an unknown double. It takes the whole idea into head-scratching territory. “
Creating doubles too, can be mind-altering for actors; Jeremy Irons initially wanted separate dressing rooms for both his characters in 1988’s Dead Ringers, where he played twin gynaecologists posing as the same person. Jesse Eisenberg says in real life he took on the characteristics of either the more nervous Simon or the confident James, according to which he was playing. “Coming face to face with different selves of yourself is unnerving, that’s why it’s a much-used concept,” he explains.
There is an all-too-current explanation, however, as to why 2014 has brought a new trend for doppelganger movies, according to Alissa Wilkinson, a film critic and professor at NYC’s The King’s College. “Social media,” she says. “We are all suffering from Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO as it’s known. We are confronted on Facebook, on Instagram, on Twitter, with hourly updates of how wonderful everyone else’s life is.
“I think that’s at the root of our doppelganger obsession and fear in this modern age. We’re afraid we’re not enough and so we’re creating our own doubles in our Facebook profiles. Those whom we wish would love us might prefer us if we were better, prettier, sexier, more likeable. I call it the idea of our better double… Ask yourself this: is my Facebook self really me?”
“The difference between us and the idea of the double in cinema is that in the movies, it’s always unexpected. In real life we’re constructing them for ourselves now. You’re facing the possibility you could lose your real self to your Facebook self,” she says.
Does this mean the idea of another self is less terrifying to a more sophisticated cinema audience? “The internet age has meant that it’s not such a stretch to imagine actually meeting your doppelganger one day – we even ache to have our own celebrity lookalikes,”replies Wilkinson. “It’s going to get harder to scare us, but at the same time we’re ever more curious about idea of ‘another me’.”
“I think the real-life problem of identity theft can actually make the idea of the double even more sinister in the modern age,” argues David Hall. “We’ve all shared too much on social media, and when people are literally stealing ourselves, it has the potential for films to resonate even more.”
Alissa Wikinson believes cloning, as seen recently in TV shows such as Canadian drama Orphan Black on BBC America, is where the future of the double lies on screen. “Partly because human cloning is a real prospect and one that we’re wary of, but partly because it puts a new spin on the genre: someone else is creating a double of you, and if they’re doing that, then their intent must be malevolent,” she says.
Of course, there could also be one simple explanation for the endurance of the doppelganger as a cinematic device. It’s a visual representation of an old saying:you are your own worst enemy.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.