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Monday, October 29, 2007

Doppelganger Movies (originally published 5/97)

You've heard it lots of times: everybody has a double somewhere in the world. But why should that belief be so widespread? The complexity of the DNA molecule allows for such an astronomical number of combinations that the probability of actual duplication is vanishingly remote. In the absence of factors loading the genetic dice, such as the birth of twins, the likelihood that you or I have an actual double is virtually zero.

So why are we so fascinated by the prospect? Psychologists speak of a syndrome in which unbearable guilt feelings can lead people to create a fictional alter ego, a doppelganger (German for "double walker"), who then receives the blame for those actions that inspired the feelings of guilt in the first place. Whether you buy that explanation or not, the fact remains that storytellers have long been intrigued by the premise of the double. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, exploits the idea in a story called "William Wilson," in which a disturbed young man hunts down and kills a man just because the unfortunate fellow shares his name. As his victim expires, Wilson is horrified to discover that the man is his exact double. Filmmakers also discovered the doppelganger premise long ago. The most recent example is the current Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, "Sliding Doors." For a sampling of earlier doppelganger films, look for these titles on home video.

"The Student of Prague" (1913). In this early silent classic, German filmmaker Paul Wegener combines the doppelganger theme with a Faustian bargain with the devil to create one of the seminal works in the history of the horror film genre. In it, a university student sells his mirror reflection to the devil in return for earthly riches. Since the reflection no longer belongs to him, it walks right out of the mirror and takes on an independent existence, eventually becoming its former owner's nemesis. This one isn't easy to track down, but it does exist on video. Facets Video (, for example, lists the film in its massive catalog.

"The Man Who Haunted Himself" (1970). Flash forward 57 years, and the reverberations of "The Student of Prague" can still be seen. That's how influential it was. This variation on the story concerns a businessman named Harold Pelham (Roger Moore) who nearly dies in an automobile accident. When trauma surgeons revive him, somehow his double is brought back to the land of the living along with his original self. As he begins to hear reports of people seeing him in places where he knows he hasn't been, Pelham gradually realizes that someone has begun to take over his day to day existence, effectively pushing him to the margins of his own life. Most disturbingly of all, it seems that this mysterious doppelganger is doing a better job of being Harold Pelham than the original ever had.

"Julia and Julia" (1988). This interesting little nightmare of a movie stars Kathleen Turner as Julia, a woman whose existence alternates between two versions of her life. In one version, she is a desolate widow whose husband was killed in an automobile accident on the day of their wedding. In the other, she is happily married and has a lover on the side. Director Peter Del Monte and his co-screenwriters Silvia Napolitano and Sandro Petraglia have taken the traditional doppelganger narrative and turned it inside out. Instead of one clear-cut main character and a shadowy, mysterious other, we are made to identify with both halves of the doubled pair simultaneously.

"The Double Life of Veronique" (1991). The untimely death of Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski some two years ago robbed international cinema of one of its most potent voices. One of the works he left behind is this striking film, one of the most artful variations on the doppelganger theme in recent memory. Irene Jacob stars in the dual role of a French woman named Veronique and a Polish woman named Veronika. Although leading separate lives in separate places, the film shows us how their lives are inextricably intertwined. Although Kieslowski had previously announced his retirement from filmmaking, he had nevertheless begun working on a new project at the time of his death. If only he could have left us his own doppelganger to enrich us with the films that will now remain forever unmade.

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