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Double Reflections: Beyond the Shadow of the Double

The theme of “the double” has exerted a complex and ambiguous fascination throughout the cultural history of the last century.

Double Reflections: Beyond the Shadow of the Double
Photo: Paramount Pictures

The theme of “the double” has exerted a complex and ambiguous fascination throughout the cultural history of the last century. Arguably, every form of contemporary art has been touched by this powerful theme and its many implications. Indeed, the double is more than a theme: it is a basic figuration, an archetype whose flexible structure can express multiple meanings and associations. In a sense, the double is, appropriately, a multi-faceted mental form.

The relationship between the double and the cinema is especially intriguing: we could say that the double, born mainly in literature and poetry, has found in cinema its natural medium of expression. The reasons for that are more structural than aesthetic: in fact, in film the double is often not only a theme or a form, but also a fundamental subtext directly connected to the particular nature of the cinematic experience.

Filmic universes

The specificity of cinema is an expression of its inherent characteristics, its unique way of representing reality, its technologies, its implicit structure. The unique features that comprise filmic representation are powerful tools in the hands of a skillful director: for instance, the complexities of editing, the varied uses of sound and music, the control of cinematography, or the application of special effects. Perhaps the most peculiar and important of these filmic specificities is point of view, or more specifically, the manipulation of the camera, of its position and movement. Cinema is the only fictional and photographic medium over which the artist (in this case, the director) has total control of point of view, unlike painting, comics, and photography, that deal only with still images.

Another essential characteristic of cinema is its explicit formal boundaries. A film is a very delimited work of art: two-dimensional, it has specific boundaries in space (i.e., the screen) and time (i.e., a continuous experience generally of 1-3 hours), and is ideally experienced in a specific architectural space (i.e., the theatre). Furthermore, a film is a relatively fixed and reproducible object: we can see it as many times as we want, and, in one sense (but not every sense), it is always the same.

That’s why a movie is such a powerful tool for representing reality: it is, indeed, a finely delineated microcosm with a powerful tendency toward objectivity, yet is simultaneously open to various levels of subjectivity and vision. A movie is a mandala, a hologram of reality, of the artist’s vision and conception of reality. Like a miniature universe, it has a structure, a geometry, a continuous interaction of forms on an indefinite number of planes, texts and subtexts; and, above all, an insistent meta-commentary derived from its various points of view. As in Wagner’s Wort-Ton-Drama, in which the music realizes a meta-structure that comments and gives meaning to the theatrical action, so in movies the sum of the camera’s points of view and its movements provide interweaving levels of information, emotion, beauty and meaning. Not every director is able to exploit these levels to their full capacity; but those who can are certainly, if not the greatest, the most medium-specific artists: in their hands, cinema achieves its full stature.

Basic doubles

In a sense, creating a universe means to create a double. The creator-creation axis is one of the most fundamental dualities, the most archetypal division of consciousness. Such an axis is similar, if not identical, to another important duality: the subject-object division between a consciousness that perceives and something else, the object that is perceived. And, becoming more specific, and getting nearer to the stuff of cinema, it is the same axis as the seer-seen, observer-observed, voyeur-objective world dualities.

In cinema, the director is the creator and subject, while the movie is the creation and object. Yet immediately, we can see that something very interesting occurs in this fundamental duality. Another, more ambiguous division occurs: the subject splits in two, the director-creator and the spectator-perceiver; the first one owns, in a way, the vision of the second.

This structure is complex, indeed. The ambiguity of vision in cinema—its being shared between and asymmetrically controlled by two “minds”—is a basic double in cinematic experience. The spectators are in a way “possessed” by the director’s mind; their vision is guided, their emotions manipulated, their perceptions molded and structured. At the same time, spectators actively become new creators, masters of the world that is lent to them: their consciousness, perceptions and interpretations are given new form, a new synthesis; and they become, in the ultimate sense, directors of their own experience of a movie. Thus, cinema and double are inextricably intertwined.

Brian De Palma’s movies are a beautiful catalogue of the possible methods by which the double can find its full realization in a filmic structure. Remember, for instance, the wonderful sequence in The Untouchables when Malone is murdered. The director’s vision is viewed, for the most part, through both the spectators’ and the killer’s eyes. We see through the killer, and we see through De Palma. Our consciousness is immediately and tragically split: our cognition is bound to the camera’s vision, (“owned” by the bad guy), while our heart and feelings are projected onto Malone, the “object” (and target) of this vision (indeed a loved and cherished object, the sum total of what a De Palma “good guy” can be). With our spirit and aesthetic sensibility fully awake and focused, we perceive the beauty of the scene, the meta-meaning that is beyond its images, as if through a premonition achieved in only a few instants, which is always the case in truly great scenes. And, beautifully, this vision that penetrates Malone’s house, that spies and hides, shifting behind a wall, dancing through space and time in search of its object with calm complacency, becomes immediately the best incarnation of a metaphysical voyeur, of our desperate observing consciousness. We are outside the scene, spectators, helpless, but at the same time inside, as accomplices, maybe as killers. And perhaps, in a sense, we are also, ultimately, victims. Only in the end of the sequence, when geometries converge and meanings collapse, our consciousness is reconnected to its primary object, to Malone’s body and mind: but only in death, the only possible singleness, and in the final sign of his blood, which will give meaning to his death and guide his friend Ness to the next clue, the next level of truth.

Consciousness and awareness

A significant ambiguity that results from splitting a consciousness in two (or, similarly, blending two consciousnesses into one) is the mirror game of comprehension, of conscious acknowledgement: how much one knows about the other, how much the other is aware of what one knows. In the ultimate sense, life itself, like cinema, seems to be a complicated game of relative awareness. The sensation of “being observed while observing” is a fundamental component of our state of consciousness. It influences our judgements and our emotions, and as we try to see ourselves through the eyes of all, and to be aware of their awareness, the cloning of vision stems from the cloning of identities, and the theme of the double naturally gives space to that of voyeurism.

The fundamental movie about voyeurism as a symbol of the human condition is Rear Window, as the fundamental movies about the double are Psycho and Vertigo (Hitchcock had indeed a very special sensibility regarding film archetypes). Especially in the first half of his career, De Palma has enjoyed re-interpreting these Hitchcock movies, deepening and enriching their themes and contents, interweaving them in new fictional structures. From the beginning, therefore, the double and voyeurism were main obsessions in De Palma’s cinema, and so strong is their connection in the powerful and complex vision of his individual films that, often, it is difficult to say if what we are seeing is double or voyeurism, or both.

In Body Double, for example, the importance of awareness is expressed with extreme power in the film’s condensation of De Palma’s themes. Here the protagonist’s voyeurism is the effect of complex manipulation: his “friend” puts him in the right place at the right time with the right suggestions, so that he can “peep” on a woman. The set up’s metaphorical similarity to a film’s spectator and director is almost perfect. We can identify with the protagonist, and be unconsciously reassured in our role as voyeurs of the film, mirrored in his role as a voyeur of a body. The friend-actor-manipulator lurks in the background, but at this point in the story, we still have little comprehension of his real purpose.

Then something crucial happens: Jake Scully sees something outside the frame of the scene he has been set up to watch: a danger, a menace, perhaps a mystery, in the form of an Indian working on a satellite dish and “peeping” on the same woman. His role becomes more active; he pursues, he comes in contact with Gloria Rivelle, the object of his voyeurism. When Jake stumbles, on the beach, to explain his identity to her, this moment is one of the most moving and perfect in De Palma’s work. The voyeur cannot explain himself. His role is, in some way, fraudulent, incomplete. Similarly, man cannot explain his role in reality. In a sense, we are incomplete, fraudulent. We can “peep” on the movie of reality, sometimes even try to possess it, to interact with it. But always, something is fundamentally lacking. We cannot really become its heroes, let alone its protagonists.

At the same time, in the scene on the beach, the hero-villain double is expressed with unusual beauty. Jake, the would-be hero, and the menacing “Indian” are each other’s mirror. When Jake at last speaks to Gloria to disclose that someone is following her, she readily agrees, suggesting that she understands that he has been following her. Which is, literally, true.

And then something else happens. Gloria is killed, while Jake, the “hero,” is watching, still unable to save her. And so another strange facet of the double is expressed: the voyeur, the would-be hero, becomes a witness. Which is, in a way, an intermediate state: one who can only perceive and not act, but whose perception can in some way define reality, create the truth. Or at least what appears to be truth.

The truth here seems simple. The killer is an Indian, a mysterious pursuer we have already seen before—and decidedly not Gloria’s husband, Alexander Rivelle, who should be the natural suspect. But, as the story unfolds, we realize that nothing is as it seems: the killer is indeed her husband, who is also “the Indian,” who is also “Sam,” Jake’s so-called friend who has orchestrated the entire scenario. Sam is the creator, artist, manipulator and bad guy all at once: a mise en abyme of doubles, a summa of role-playing.

Amidst the ingenuity of the plot, a single question arises that we may not think to ask after a single viewing: why is Jake’s role as witness so important to convincing the police that Alexander Rivelle is not the killer? After all, he is the killer, but was only disguised as an Indian when he murdered Gloria. Jake, after all, has observed a perfect truth: a husband who, in disguise, has killed his wife. The more important point is that, in the apparent reconstruction of the murder scene by the witness and the police, the killer could not be aware that he was being observed. Jake was observing him through a telescope, from a distance. How could the Indian know? And therefore, why would the killer wear a disguise, and bother to enact such a complex show? The conclusion is therefore “obvious” that Gloria’s killer is not her husband.

But once we understand the larger scenario, and realize that the Indian and Sam are both Alexander Rivelle, who knows that he is being observed, we recognize a perfectly reasonable motive for the disguise, for the show, with no alibi available for Gloria’s husband.

Therefore, the subtext of the plot suggests that the interpretation of reality and comprehension of its structure depend on shifting modes of observation. In a word, vision and awareness of vision are the two strongest determinants of truth.

Moral mirrors

The double is, ultimately, a selection of information. It is, in this sense, a choice. And, as a choice, it has a moral value.

In an existence made of infinitely plural universes (a reasonable theory of quantum physics, not merely a fabrication of science fiction), every thing and every body can be everything and everybody. But if all chances are equal, then there is no choice, no value, no purpose. In the poetic world of Borges, for instance, the infinite is only an accumulation of chances; eternity is only the death of any individual value and hope. Thus, a repetitive view of the infinite leads to a completely void vision of humanity. It is the void space of Mission to Mars, the purposeless chance in which human stories seem to fail or die.

Identity, instead, is the choice of a specified form, of specified information. It is a choice among possible meanings. If one adopts a specified identity, a specified role, the dice have been thrown. And such a choice, such a selection of information, such a deletion of all other possible occurrences, fractures reality. Choice gives birth to similar, but different, chances. It certainly gives birth to opposite chances: one can be good or bad, can love or hate, be faithful or betray, protect or destroy.

The disincarnate consciousness seeking a role (i.e., the voyeur) is constantly trying to comprehend a “reality.” But an uneasy rule applies: you can look, you can “peep,” but if you touch, everything changes (as quantum mechanics students certainly know). If you look, the many are in you. If you touch, you are in the many. You are someone, but you can also be (or become) someone else. You are no more alone. You have to confront yourself and your multiple reflections. You have to confront your opposite. You must fight. You can lose. You can be a victim. You, or some part of you, can die. In a word, you have become a body.

Such is the ambiguity, and the fascination, of the double. It invokes specification, and at the same time it casts the shadow of a doubt. You can no more be anyone and anything. You can be someone, or someone else, or someone else again. But in each case, there is meaning. And the meanings, although elusive, are always different.

Mirrored moralities

Though the confrontations with the variations (or reflections) of one’s identity create a sense of uncertainty, meeting one’s opposite may be the cause of a moral crisis. In Snake Eyes, for example, Rick Santoro is morally superficial and ambiguous until he has to face his double-opposite, the good-guy-turned-bad-guy, Kevin Dunne. Likewise, in Casualties of War, Erickson is forced to become an “incomplete” hero when he confronts the “bad” Meserve and his accomplices.

Heroes are more or less ambiguous; fascinated by their own sense of duality, they split reality within themselves—good and evil, cognition and feeling, truth and power—and are never able to make an ultimate choice. Villains, in contrast, are fascinating. They seem to have achieved an attractive singularity; they act as though they really are simply a “body”, a permanent reality, an objective “truth,” as though they have found a seeming harmony with their physical role, and with the violence inherent in it. They have sex, and make a weapon of it (as Meserve clearly states in Casualties of War), while, for the voyeur-hero, sex is destined to be only a symbol, an impossible goal, the figuration of the failure to physically possess matter. Bad guys, instead, do possess things and people (or at least believe they do). In the words of Tony Montana, they have “balls.” But their ambition to own “the world and everything in it,” is a pitiful ideal, so similar to the voyeur’s ambition of knowing the world through vision alone. The negation of the double generates monsters, careless fighters doomed to destroy themselves and the things they (may) own. So in the end Montana is attacked, with tragic irony, by a baroque multiplication, almost a cloning, of a special, virtual double, a single-minded, powerful “metaphysical” killer: at the “excessive” ending of Scarface, Montana stands impossibly alive against crowds of repetitive enemies, while their leader, the origin and synthesis of all of them, easily destroys him with a single shot in the back. Thus, this “killer without an identity” becomes a perfect incarnation of the impersonal evil, which, in De Palma’s movies, seems to be the real substance behind the various villains, and is ultimately and completely triumphant over the physical, perishable bad guy.

Conversely, being in the many can also be an instrument of constructive choice, and sometimes of salvation. In Femme Fatale, for instance, the doubling of a consciousness and of a life becomes, perhaps, a useful tool to change destiny—to throw the dice a second time without coming up snake eyes. The way to freedom may not always require a moral recognition; instead, it may spring from the intuition of a pattern, from a reconstruction of reality with different space and time relationships, from a blinding ray of light. In any case, the result is all that matters. Freedom, salvation, these are the ultimate goals.


The double is always a mirror of the unsolved mystery of consciousness: if we are single, we are alone and helpless; if we are multiple, we are lost. The doubling and multiplying of vision in cinema is an extreme expression of a state of consciousness common to all: perhaps we are observing, perhaps we are being observed; perhaps we are not as simple as we like to think, not as lonely as we fear, not as free as we imagine. Perhaps good and evil are not so clear-cut, and yet they are not really blended either. As in the yin-yang symbol, black and white are separate and united at the same time, but in different ways.

This powerful figuration, this archetype so close to the very essence of cinema, is a form difficult to control. Not every director is able to manage its intimidating power, its deceiving complexity. When dealing with doubles, a director needs a very specific touch, a great mastery of his art; otherwise, he is bound to fail. He cannot be too explicit. He cannot be predictable. He cannot be moralistic, philosophical, or generic. The double is pure form, and requires absolute mastery of form to express its values.

De Palma has made the double (and voyeurism) a very private obsession. He is the best at dealing with the theme. His doubles live in the structure of his artistic vision; they are never too explicit, never vulgar, never contrived, never the same. Other great directors have incorporated the theme of the double in their work, with various results. Among the best examples are David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and David Lynch’s sublime Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

Dead Ringers is more about the body than the double. Through the twin protagonists of Cronenberg’s movie, the body and the double are inexorably connected: they are identical; both are gynaecologists; in their physical being and occupation, the mystery of the body’s origin and duplication is passively and actively prominent: being twins, they share, in a sense, a same body while being physically separated; and by choosing to work and act on the generation of the physical body, they are trying to gain power over the same forces which were originally responsible for their condition. But the balance of this fragile gestalt is compromised by the love for one (single) woman; and the whole two-brothers-in-one system, once so efficient for sharing and compensating for all of life’s experiences, has to face a sudden crisis, and is ultimately destined to failure, madness and death. In a perfect scene, one of the twins, already aware of the fracture of the inner link between himself and his brother, hires a couple of twin prostitutes to recreate, by the power of names, his lost integrity: during their sexual intercourse, he instructs one of the girls to call him by his own name, and instructs the other to call him by his brother’s name. Thus, the fracture of a pristine symmetry—that is of the pre-existing, harmonious relationship between the twins—evokes the generation of new dualities on multiple sublevels. That’s how the structure of duality (or of the mind) evolves in new, (random?) branches, like a fractal image, or rather like a web.

In Lynch’s extraordinary movies, so similar and so different, a very radical double is displayed: two different persons with two different lives and stories tragically overlap, intruding one into the other. The way this is accomplished, at the plot level, is a true formal miracle, an aesthetic intuition that easily transcends any conventional treatment of space, time, causality and narration, following exclusively the inner, deep thread that only pure art can reveal. Thus, we see the body of one character simply substituted for that of another one (for example, the wonderful scene in the prison cell in Lost Highway), or rather, in Mulholland Drive, the cloning of one’s life story from another, through a very complicated web of totally irrational but extremely powerful connections. The films’ meaning, denied to the intellect, becomes a strong, chilling subtext that finds its devastating way directly to our hearts and souls. In Lynch’s movies, however, the double is only one of many doors to the ultimate mysteries of existence; and a surreal sense of subjective, unsolved tragedy takes the place of the objective failure of identity in De Palma’s classical, geometrical work.


Toto le Héros, from Belgian director Jaco van Dormael, is an extremely complex and rich work of art, touching on many deep subjects with inspiration and grace. A unique plot structure based in the double beautifully supports its themes.

Essentially the “birth-to-death” life story of Thomas, it is more accurately his “death to death” story (à la Sunset Boulevard and Carlito’s Way), as his death scene frames and colors the story as a grotesque and ironic film noir. The actual starting point of the plot is the process of birth: the protagonist, indeed, lives his whole life with the firm conviction (maybe justified, maybe not) that, as a newborn, he was exchanged with another baby during a nursery fire. Thomas believes he is living a life not his own, and secretly hates the other child, Alfred, who has supposedly stolen his destiny, and who happens to live nearby in a wealthier family. The consequence of this mental fracture is that Thomas lives with the feeling that he is not really living, that his story is only a pale double of what could and should have been, a void without value or justification. Over the course of the plot, however, the lives of Thomas and Alfred interweave in beautiful and unpredictable ways, and the ambiguity and irrelevance of Thomas’s basic assumption becomes evident: the two parts of the double reveal their total incompleteness, their personal failures, their mirroring diversities. Dormael masterfully creates a precious vision of love, loss, solitude, friendship and compassion. In the end, we are left with the astonishing evidence that Thomas’ life has been all but void: he has touched, lived and lost almost any deep value of life, without being able to acknowledge that value.

Again, the double is a powerful symbol of the basic dissociation in human life, but given a different perspective. In De Palma’s movies the voyeur lives in a disincarnate state, and tries, without success, to “grasp” and possess the objects of life, to gain an identity and a role. In Toto le Héros Thomas lives a full and deep life, while being deprived of any sense of possession, of any chance at identification. In both cases, the result is the same: dissociation, failure, suffering.

Le coeur fait bum

Suffering, in the end, is key to the double. Lost in a jungle of multiple meanings or the desert of their absence, consciousness fights and observes, splits and multiplies; meanwhile, the heart suffers. It suffers in the innocent victims of Casualties of War, of Blow Out, of The Untouchables. It suffers in the voyeurs, in Jack Scully of Body Double or Jack “the écouteur” of Blow Out, in their lack of resolution and dignity. It suffers in the bad guys, in Tony Montana and Meserve, in their stolid absoluteness, in their cold, meaningless cruelty. It suffers in the body of Thomas, and in all of us who are looking at him, who are his voyeurs and doubles. And in the end, it suffers even in his ashes, when, during one of the cinema’s most beautiful endings, Charles Trenet’s wonderful song reminds us that, while all other things in the world may find their sound and their expression, “le coeur fait bum.” The heart is bound to pulse, suffer, feel, blow out: it constantly burns, and its ashes are thrown everywhere, all over reality.

In movies such as Body Double, Casualties of War, and Toto le Héros, we witness a complete universe that is a perfect double of our own, so tragically similar, so fascinatingly different. Our search for meaning, feeling and truth in this precious mirror-world is, in the end, not different from the touching quest of its characters.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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