Face/Off: The Double, Kung Fu Elliot

Film Festivals, FILM
img_thedoubleAt the New Zealand International Film Festival: Richard Ayoade’s eagerly awaited follow-up to Submarine; the marital arts madness of a would-be kung fu movie star.

Applying his distinctive brand of magical realism to a Dostoevsky novella of the same name, Richard Ayoade’s The Double proves an arresting blend of quirky humour and noir-glazed psychodrama. Set against the backdrop of a dystopian bureaucracy, Gilliam/Brazil comparisons are understandable and not altogether unfair. Indeed, Ayoade’s general tone and style owe a debt to Gilliam as do the specifics of the set and lighting design of The Double to Brazil, and yet you could also say that Brazil borrowed its context from the highly regimented bureaucracy of the Tsarist Russia described in Dostoevsky’s writings. Regardless, the visual tone of the film is strong, in a spare European vein, and is backed by an appropriately dissonant sound design which heightens the psychological tension already present in the narrative.

I would posit that the cast generate much of the darker tenor the story demands. Jesse Eisenberg shades his signature nervous energy well in his dual roles of Simon James, the shy, awkward low-level administrative staff member of an all-consuming data corporation, and his doppelgänger James Simon who mysteriously appears as a new hire at his workplace and instantly becomes the universally loved golden boy. (Oddly, I was reminded of Julius and Vincent from Ivan Reitman’s middling ’80s comedy Twins, who were supposedly the negative and positive attributes of one person separated out into two). Mia Wasikowska as Simon’s photocopying object of affection Hannah impresses with her ability to somehow play cold and appealing simultaneously. The support cast is stacked with excellent character actors such as Wallace Shawn as Simon/James’s supervisor Mr. Papadopoulos and Noah Taylor as Simon’s colleague and fair-weather friend Harris. Even the bit parts are filled with the likes of Chris O’Dowd as a nurse at the facility where Simon’s dementia addled mother resides, and Kierston Wareing in a single scene as James’s funeral date. It’s also interesting to note that in a film whose title and theme is about identity confusion, Ayoade has involved almost the entire central cast of his previous feature Submarine—this seems too on the nose to be pure coincidence.

The Double’s study of fractured identity and personhood plays in a (heavily) diluted Bressonian way—perhaps unsurprising as Bresson adapted several Dostoevsky works himself. Ayoade’s major divergence is one of subtlety: where Bresson opts for economy and evenness, Ayoade underlines and underscores at every turn. He seems to have set all dials to full, playing with a range of handheld versus locked off shots and a confronting use of sound. Though I found myself at times wishing he’d dial back, his deft directorial hand manages to keep the balance of accounts in the positive, displaying an underlying sense of style and whimsy which is as much Gondry as Gilliam.

img_kungfuelliotLikewise a film of evolving identity, Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau’s Kung Fu Elliot follows the filmmaking efforts and relationships of the eponymous Elliot “White Lightning” Scott—a man who could well be his own doppelgänger. Some documentaries track the progress of a great success; tales of inspiration, of beating the odds. Other documentaries stand as cautionary tales; visual records of lives gone wrong or the evils of which humanity is capable. With Kung Fu Elliot, the filmmakers combine these two standpoints in a riveting voyeuristic car-crash of a personality profile which careens all over the show as reveal after reveal is made. As a first/second feature, multi-hyphenates Bauckman and Belliveau—they both wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited the film—prove dab hands at pulling together a compelling story which simultaneously shocks and stirs from a small scale subject. Humorous, hopeful, moving, and dumbfounding, Kung Fu Elliot is a captivating ride through two years in the life of a New Brunswick martial artist on his campaign to become Canadian cinema’s answer to Jean-Claude van Damme. Albeit an unasked for and somewhat underwhelming one.

I wonder how much of Elliot’s story was known to the filmmakers at the beginning of their two year footage gathering quest and how much came to light over that period? I suspect that our journey as the audience likely reflects the basic outline of their own. Whilst people are apt to liken Kung Fu Elliot to American Movie, which is a kindred cinematic spirit, I find it has as many parallels with Grebin and Nigro’s American Cannibal (2006), which saw its directors find a completely different story to that which they had first expected when they started shooting.

Despite the sometimes shocking, sometimes laughable delusions Kung Fu Elliot serves up, you have to give credit to the subject: he is actually getting films out to an audience.[1] Incredibly amateur films to a (very) limited audience, perhaps, but that is a whole lot more than what is achieved by the average pipe-dreamer. The documentary even begins with footage of Elliot hawking DVD copies of his work from out the front of local video stores with autographs and photo-ops enthusiastically offered. If Elliot is living in an imaginary land then he’s in good company, as his crew of friends and collaborators seem mostly pretty excited to be there with him. The notable exception in his brusque, long-suffering girlfriend Linda, whose patience wears increasingly thin despite displaying a level of self-delusion perhaps not far off his own. Like the best awkward/crazy subject documentaries—Winnebago Man, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, the aforementioned American MovieKung Fu Elliot adds to an already promising premise unexpected story twists and an astounding level of access to the filmmakers, all of which makes for engaging, mouth agape viewing.

[1] You can check out some tidbits of Elliot’s filmmaking and other recording via his Youtube channel.

The Double (Richard Ayoade, UK, 2013)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other

Kung Fu Elliot (Matthew Bauckman/Jaret Belliveau, Canada)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington

Filed under: Film Festivals, FILM


Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.