This film was loosely based on the novel, "The Double", by the Portuguese author Jose Saramago who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Yeah--probably like me, you haven't read many of his novels since they were Portuguese...
The cast had questions about the meaning of the script and the director said any of them could ask the author what he had in mind and the author said he'd be glad to respond. Then the author died. I suspect had he lived and the cast asked him questions, he would have told them he didn't have answers anyway, as he wanted the reader to be an active participant in the meaning of the story. Therefore some things are left ambiguous.
His death also freed up the director and script writing, to depart a little more from the novel without having to worry about the author feeling offended.
I got this in Blu-Ray mainly on the strength of the cast and what sounded like an intriguing plot line: a man finds that he has a double in the world. Now I'd like to switch to what it's like to watch the film, and emphasize a few points:
The film presents three statements (in print or vocally--there are some other statements that are visual, that I'll come back to) which should be seen as related to each other and to the story as a whole. The first one appears in print on the black screen before the movie proper begins: Chaos is order yet unrecognized. The second and third come from the history-teacher Gyllenhaal's mouth: "That totalitarian states all have one overarching goal: control of power. How they achieve it varies somewhat from case to case, but it usually involves controlling education, controlling media, or freedom of speech and financial controls, and may go as far as control over life or death <but this means the prior controls aren't working>. AND THIS IS A THEME IN HISTORY. It occurs over and over again." Statement three <getting closer to the plot-line> "That Hegel said all really important events occur twice. To that Karl Marx added: The first time is a tragedy, and the second time is a farce."
This is like watching the least horrifying horror film you've ever seen. That is, there's no blood, no exorcist, no clear supernatural powers, no murders etc. --yet the overall effect is rather like watching a stylish horror movie.
Or it may be compared to watching a dream--a somewhat disturbing dream--on your TV. Things start up midway through for no apparent reason, and the story ends without quite ending, like you woke from a dream without knowing exactly what the ending was supposed to be.
The history-teacher version of Gyllenhaal starts the story off. He has a live-in girlfriend and seems as interested in philosophy as in history, but he also looks profoundly depressed--like he feels there must be some greater meaning to life and it hasn't been revealed to him yet. Then in a seemingly casual conversation someone recommends a film to him. He rents the movie, and partway through, in a small role, he sees: HIMSELF. Fascinated he has to back it up, study the face, find the actor's name in the credits--then try to find out how to contact the actor who looks like he could be an identical twin <of course, both history teacher and actor are played by Gyllenhaal, who alters nothing except his clothing to depict the differences>.
But this isn't actually where the movie begins either. It actually begins with a scene that looks as if it could have been culled from "Eyes Wide Shut", or way before that from the writings of the Marquis de Sade. This opening vignette plays out without a word being spoken. And in fact, that's the way quite a bit of the movie plays out.
Much of the "story" is told visually--whether depicting the environment, or simply the expressions on faces. Dialog is kept to the minimum needed to keep the story going forward. There are long sections of silence, in which often it's history-teacher Gyllenhaal simply sits thinking, looking troubled. The audience is left to fill in the blanks as to what exactly he's thinking.
There are several visual motifs which predominate. Very early you'll see the spider/spider-web motif. Then, there is the color-tone: almost all of it soft, glowing gold on dark brown or black. Simultaneously looking both luxurious and dangerous. Finally, there's the "space-goat" motif <just to throw in a totally obscure reference.> Images that aren't explained, leaving the audience again to reach its own ideas on whether they are meant to actually depict some hidden reality, or whether Gyllenhaal is hallucinating, or whether they are just images he sees in his mind's eye as metaphors for reality. Some look like they could have been plucked out of "War of the Worlds", and some connect vaguely to "The Matrix" and the idea that what you see about you isn't the real world.
I don't want to give away any more plot, I'll just say that the principle actors include Gyllenhaal x 2 and his two significant others <who also look superficially alike>, both beautiful blondes with blue eyes and very fair skin: Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon. Oh of course: the cinematography makes very little use of CG or such tricks, but is nicely done and beautiful in places. The soundtrack: one wouldn't necessarily want to call it "music" or certainly not songs. The soundtrack, when it's layered on, always contributes to the sense of ominous suspense.
I hope you enjoy the film, as I did--it helps if you aren't expecting it to tell a straightforward story but to be more like, as I said, watching a long dream on the screen. You're eyes are feeling heavy now...