Cinematic Doppelgängers

The pull between like in cinema is different than it is in magnetics. Opposites attract in romantic comedies, but the like are more drawn to each other in outside genres. The idea of a doppelgänger, the double that exists in the world, is one that involves mythic ties and thethers to bind these individuals together.

This last week we were gifted Jordan Peele’s Us, a chaotic thriller that pits a family against their doubles in an intense conflict that asks us to look at who represents what in the American family. Taking influences from many sources (The Twilight Zone and Alice in Wonderland come quickly to mind), he participates in a tale as old as the Ancient Egyptian idea of “ka.” While his is a fresh and new story for modern audiences, the idea of the shadow or the mirror image has been around throughout cinema and its stories have resulted in some lasting classics. I just want to briefly go over some of these, from stories about twins to the molding of a doppelgänger, and look into why we find them fascinating.

Vertigo – Alfred Hitchcock

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There’s a nightmare scenario at play with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a man who watches the woman he loves die and is then confronted with a near-identical double. Scottie Ferguson is a haunted man, driven nearly insane by his newfound sensation of dizziness in high places and then by seeing the woman he loves everywhere. At first believing that he has stuck in an instance of mistaken identity, he comes to mold her into a spot-on image of his former lover. She puts up almost no fight, allowing herself to be morphed into the woman because she is the woman. Scottie hasn’t found a doppelgänger, he’s found the woman herself. The representation of the shadow here revolves around a performance, from dressing as a dead woman in a painting to being recreated into something between living and dead.

Dead Ringers – David Cronenberg

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Twins serving as their own doppelgängers is a frightening concept in and of itself. Now make them gynecologists. Weirder, right? Jeremy Irons portrays the twins Elliot and Beverly Mantle, two doctors creating new tools and techniques in their field, but as they begin to delve into external romance and experimentation they begin switching places to experience new things, each living the other’s life in an ever-festering conflict of horrific proportions. As they share women, drugs, and praise, each begins to dive into the personality of the other. There is a lot that leaves them similar already, mirror traits and lives meshing together. It’s a terrifying scenario, but a fascinating one that leaves you distrusting of your mirror opposite.

Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford

Fictional doppelgängers juxtaposed with a separate narrative can create a sense of brutal discomfort when confronted with the life of the author. We’re often told to experience that as a death, removing the creator from the creation, but Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals demands that we hold his life up against his work and compare them as sensations. There have been jokes for years about the resemblance between Isla Fischer and Amy Adams, but this films uses them as warped mirror images of each other. The plot involves a divorcee that is delivered her ex-husband’s latest novel. From there the plots begin to intertwine as the novel bends the woman’s view of reality. Rape, murder, vengeance, and power-struggles all wrap together and the woman is coupled with her fictional double. As she floats in ennui, the fictional wife suffers and dies at the hands of a backroads killer. Each represents missing pieces of the other, from fidelity to joy to terror, and the woman begins to see herself in her fictional double.

Doppelgänger – Robert Parrish

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This one’s a weird one. Parrish’s film has achieved a cult following in the last twenty years, those that discovered it finding an underlying terror in the ideas behind the plot. We’re not just given a single doppelgänger here, we’re given an entire planet. The premise dictates that there is an identical Earth in the same orbit around the sun we are in, but on the perfect opposite side of the celestial body. When two astronauts land and discover this they are thrown into a surrealistic representation of the mirror. They never meet themselves, but rather everyone else. Representation of shadow has no purpose here, instead just a reversed version of what we already know that creates unease and fear.

Mulholland Drive – David Lynch

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Decades after Hitchcock gave us a man creating a perfect doppelgänger, David Lynch took it a step further and asked us to question reality and dream logic. There’s so much to unpack in this film, but the main bit I want to tackle is how one double is morphed into another through mixed realities and the destruction of self. Naomi Watts’s Betty (or is it Diane?) is gifted with the broken toy of her former lover, a woman she seems not to recognize but is drawn to save. Rita, the adopted moniker of the doll-woman, has experienced a car accident and has lost her memories. Through a series of misadventures they wind up needing to disguise Rita and, after an intense sexual encounter, Betty disguises her in a wig that is excessively similar to her own hair and the two follow a dream into a club. Melting together during the stage performance, the women become one in a pair of weeping angel images. “No hay banda,” is the rallying cry of the show, and yet they hear it. Their duality fluctuates and it is only after the major reveal that we’re given a final glimpse into the inspiration behind the depth of their dream. Or is it reality?

Those are my favorite doppelgänger films, each lifting visual symmetry to stand against all of reality and personality types to create sensations of unease, dread, and pure horror. Anyone else have a fascination with these types of films? Let me know what your favorites are! Also if you have time get out and see Jordan Peele’s Us because…it’s so damned great.

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