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10 Essential Doppelgänger Films to Watch Before ‘Enemy’ and ‘The Double’

Written by on March 13, 2014 

Describing the source material for Denis Villeneuve‘s Enemy, we said it’s a straight-forward tale of doppelgänger; “There’s the alpha, the pushover, and the innocent victims caught between; the insanity of seeing an exact replica in the flesh paired with the infinite possibilities such a discovery could mean. One is married; one has a girlfriend. The latter injects himself into the former’s world through curiosity, the first into the second’s purely for unfounded revenge and sexual desire. They exist together without looking deeper into what they are, pushing forward along a path of self-destruction you can see coming a mile away, and yet still find yourself captivated through the actions of those left from the wreckage.”

However, the latest film from the Prisoners director manages to push things even further, and to celebrate its release this weekend, we’ve taken a look at other films in the sub-genre that do the same. While we’ve seen recent features such as Black Swan, The Prestige, and Moon explore this theme with admirable results, we’ve highlighted ten works, from pioneering shorts to swan songs to the greatest film of all-time (according to some), that serve as essential groundwork for the topic of doppelgänger. Ahead of Villeneuve’s film arriving this weekend and Richard Ayoade‘s The Double (our review) coming in May, check out the list below and chime in with your favorites.

Adaptation (Spike Jonze)

The most recently released feature on this list is also one of the most distinctive. Whereas this weekend’s release, and a number of features mentioned here, find our leads experiencing a sort of palpable dread when they encounter their doppelgänger, Charlie Kaufman’s twin Donald Kaufman (both portrayed by Nicolas Cage, in perhaps his best performance(s)) has seemingly been a part of his psyche (or not, depending on your interpretation) all of his life. Initially played in a humorous, neurotic fashion as Donald represents a more commercial half, the eventual relationship does inevitably break apart in a horrific way. Diving deeper into the meta, Donald Kaufman is even credited as the co-writer of the film, the first fictional character to earn an Oscar nomination. – Jordan R.

Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg)

David Cronenberg gave us two Jeremy Irons in this medical psycho-horror piece about an unusual sibling bond. Inspired by the true story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, the surreal setup follows identical twin brothers Elliot and Beverly Mantle, respected gynecologists who fall apart both mentally and professionally when one of them falls for a beautiful patient (played by Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold). Irons tackled the challenge of playing two characters, the manipulative Elliot and the sensitive Beverly, thanks to a little method acting – it’s said that he requested two dressing rooms and used them respectively depending on who he was playing. His excellent dual performance serves as the centerpiece to an unforgettable film fraught with the signature Cronenberg themes of invasive body horror (the surgical scenes are a woman’s worst nightmare) and sexual depravity. – Amanda W.

The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieślowski)

On the surface, it’s the story of Weronika and Véronique (both played by Irène Jacob). Just beneath that, it’s about the connection music creates between two unrelated people. By extension, Double Life becomes an operatic ode to life and art, perhaps the greatest achievement of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s longtime DP, Sławomir Idziak, who shamelessly uses a number of filters, and of Zbigniew Preisner, who composed the score. Less concerned with hermeneutics than utilizing sound and image to create cinematic poems and draw us into the mindset of two inexplicably but undeniably connected women. Weronika and Véronique meet only briefly, but that only emphasizes the film’s lyrical aims, concerned far more with the inner workings of thought and feeling than with narrative drama and suspense. One could talk at length on a number of gorgeous images, but, to modify an oft-used quote (with no clear attribution), “talking about The Double Life of Véronique is like dancing about architecture.” It’s better to let it wash over you, fall into its spell, and stay there, hypnotized, until the end credits roll. – Forrest C.

Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land (Maya Deren)

A pioneering talent in the world of avant-garde filmmaking, film school staple Maya Daren delivered two notable shorts early on in her career that would go on to influence a multitude of directors. Her first, 1943’s experimental Meshes of the Afternoon (watch in full here), co-directed by husband Alexander Hammid, finds her coming across her own self in a series of dreams, even going so far as contemplating murdering her sleeping doppelgänger — a thought that permeates Enemy. The next year she directed At Land (watch in full here), dealing once again with identity as she finds multiple doppelgängers while on a trip to the beach. – Jordan R.

Obsession (Brian De Palma)

Few of the frivolous criticisms lobbed against Brian De Palma carry the same weight and longevity as the “ripping-off Hitchcock” business — something I suspect (but aren’t foolish enough to hope) would dissipate quickly if more were to see Obsession. As an extremely obvious homage to Vertigo, his 1976 thriller — with one of the most intriguing screenplays Paul Schrader‘s ever put his name to — is that rare cinematic tip of the hat which manages to expand and shed further light on its predecessor while treading new ground, reconfiguring several key relationships as it tells an original story that winds up at remarkably similar ends. A film about doppelgängers that, itself, is something of a double and, in every which way, only better for it. – Nick N.

See five more essential doppelgänger films >>

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