From an Estonian commune, through the backwoods of Finland, to a Black Metal show in Norway, directors Ben Russell and Ben Rivers chase a utopian impulse across the landscapes of Scandinavia, following an enigmatic, silent musician (Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe) in A Spell To Ward Off the Darkness. Each of the film’s three segments strives for its own kind of transcendence: the radical togetherness of communal living, the solitary encounter with nature’s vastness, and the catharsis of artistic expression. As the title suggests, though, none of these ways of living proves to be enough; Lowe doesn’t defeat “the Darkness” so much as he outruns it. Each episode ends with some kind of renunciation—Lowe’s flight from the commune, his burning a shack, and finally a solitary trip out into the urban night. Yet this remains one of the most life-affirming and optimistic films I’ve seen in ages. Few filmmakers can match Russell and Rivers’ appreciation for our human capacity of self-determination. Their commune is not played for cult horror or hippie comedy, but is instead depicted as a genuine and successful effort to live by values other than those of capitalist society. Their wilderness sojourn – reminiscent of Rivers’ equally awe-inspiring feature Two Years at Sea – is not a Malickian rapture or a Herzogian cautionary tale, but a palpable demonstration of bare being-in-the-world. Then the final third of Spell situates Lowe in a world of noise and facepaint, where he finally breaks his silence. The performance concluding the film makes no pretense of being “beyond” or better than the two segments that precede it; Russell and Rivers don’t intend to position art at the top of a totem pole of the spiritual experiences their film explores. This modesty may cloak Darkness’s ambition in the guise of a more modest anthropology; but make no mistake, Russell and Rivers have made one of the most radically hopeful movies of our time.
I’m glad to see that British comedian-turned-director Richard Ayoade’s cultural memory extends beyond the boom of independent filmmaking in the 80s and 90s that made the kind of movies he makes possible. Yet respect for the artistic canon – that most Columbian of virtues – is a mixed blessing when it comes to filmmaking. His first feature Submarine demonstrated an appreciation for the early films of the French New Wave (and was, strangely, booed for it in some corners, while some of the same moves met general applause when they showed up in Frances Ha). Now The Double reaches back into the modern literary canon, drawing its lifeblood from the likes of Dostoyevsky and Kafka. The former’s novella of the same name is the primary inspiration for the movie, but Kafka’s nightmares of bureaucracy – as well as their cinematic translations in the work of Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam – are just as integral to it. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Simon James, a meek office drone who works at a derelict data analysis firm and pines after his beautiful coworker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). When a new employee, named James Simon, appears at the office, physically identical to Simon but with a totally inverted personality, James proceeds to become the new star of the office, wowing the boss (Wallace Shawn), romancing Hannah, and slowly chipping away at Simon’s already precarious position in the office hierarchy. The Double’s greatest strength is its bleak deadpan humor, which owes a great deal not only to Ayoade’s comic sensibility, but also to his newfound formal precision. The production design works wonders with the movie’s few sets, creating a world that’s both frighteningly modern and incongruously outmoded—though the real world of the film is set in contemporary America, everything that appears on a TV looks to be shot on extremely low-grade video. Erik Wilson’s lugubrious cinematography and Andrew Hewitt’s nerve-rattling score contribute to the film’s atmosphere of pervading and suffocating paranoia. And Eisenberg demonstrates his impeccable comic timing with two performances, each a photo negative of the other. Overall, The Double is a very accomplished, promising piece of work for a young director. The only problem is, by invoking the great works of film and literature, Ayoade hands us a ruler that he can’t help but fail to measure up to. Nice-guy Simon may hit all the required screenplay beats in an unusually clever pattern, but his schematic unraveling has none of the force of one of Dostoyevsky’s lunatic breakdowns. And while Simon’s meek longing for Hannah expertly triangulates the funny/creepy/cute sweet spot that a certain kind of film always seems to be striving for these days, this formulaic pining can’t match the free-floating sexual anxiety of Kafka’s The Trial for incisive sting. Obviously it’s unfair to hold The Double to the standards of some of the greatest works of literature ever written, but it’s hard to resist when a film so eagerly brings the comparison on itself.