Stream With a Theme

Stream With a Theme: The Best Doppelgänger Films

Céline Sciamma's latest Petite Maman joins a host of strange and otherworldly features about doubles, look-alikes and duplicates

The cinematic equivalent of the “Spider-Man Pointing at Spider-Man” meme, doppelgänger films tend to offer up an uncanny valley of unease: disquieting narratives where protagonists spiral into the depths of paranoia and have to grapple with what it means to know oneself.

Of course, not all doppelgänger films are built around ideas of fear. Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, in which a young girl finds her physical double playing in the woods, is the rare film in which the baffling proceedings are accepted with a quiet calm and childlike readiness. As it lands on our screens this week, we’re looking at some of cinema’s best depictions of the double, from the creepy to the philosophical…

 

Peppermint Frappé (1967)

Where to stream it: Criterion Channel (US only)

Part Hitchcock and part Buñuel, Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappé follows a physician named Julián as he becomes obsessed with a friend’s new wife, a beautiful, cosmopolitan woman named Elena (Geraldine Chaplin). The spitting image of his meek colleague Ana (also Chaplin), he decides to manipulate Ana into dressing herself just like Elena as an ersatz replacement for the woman he truly desires. Not only is it intriguing in terms of how the tables can turn so quickly where gender politics are concerned, but the film is also a thinly veiled examination of political and cultural repression under Franco’s fascist regime in Spain, with Saura resorting to surreal sequences to evade the censors.

 

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

Where to stream it: Kanopy (US only)

An excellent London-set paranoia thriller, The Man Who Haunted Himself was Basil Dearden’s final film before his untimely death in an automobile accident the year after. It stars Roger Moore – three years before he would slip into the tuxedo as 007 – as Harold, the respected director of a technology company who finds that a doppelgänger has infiltrated his personal and professional life. He goes to his barber only to be informed that they cut his hair yesterday, or he bumps into a woman who is furious that he can’t remember the night they spent together just two days ago. Disconcertingly effective, the film excels in pulling you into Harold’s growing distress and confusion.

 

Mr. Klein (1976)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

Joseph Losey put out a late-career, Kafkaesque masterpiece with Mr. Klein, teaming up with blue-eyed treasure Alain Deloin to examine France's culpability during the Nazi occupation. Klein is a well-to-do Catholic who takes advantage of Jewish dealers by buying their art for a price lower than they are worth, knowing that they are desperate for money to flee Nazi-occupied Paris. However, one day, a Jewish newspaper arrives on his doorstep, and he soon learns that there is another Robert Klein – a Jew, who we soon learn bears a resemblance to the OG Klein – who is trying to assign his identity away to someone else. Fascinating and dread-inducing, Mr. Klein examines the dual anxieties of the lurking menace of a doppelgänger with a philosophical examination of culpability and selfishness in the face of fascism.

 

Obsession (1976)

Where to stream it: BFI Player

There are countless films to choose from in Brian De Palma’s filmography when it comes to doubles, from Sisters to Femme Fatale to Body Double, but it’s in the Paul Schrader-penned Obsession where the presence of a doppelgänger is at its most disturbing. Cliff Robertson plays Michael, a wealthy real estate developer who is still traumatised by the death of his wife and young daughter sixteen years prior. On a business trip to Florence, he becomes enamoured by a woman (Geneviève Bujold) who is the spitting image of his late wife. While Robertson’s performance leaves much to be desired, Bujold rises to the task of an obscenely difficult role, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s soft-focus cinematography pulls you into the film's hallucinatory, romantic state.

The Double Life of Véronique (1991)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

Telling us first about a Polish singer named Weronika and then a French teacher named Véronique – both played by Irène Jacob – the film’s binary set-up sees the later woman inherit a philosophical weight from the first woman: not a sense of déjà vu, but of jamais vu, an unexplained eeriness like a dream you feel you should remember. Though the film’s doubles only briefly lock eyes, the feel is not scary, but hauntingly sad. Gorgeously filmed with a grainy, golden light, cinematographer Sławomir Idziak’s painterly vision attunes us to certain textures, knowable things, that feel comforting and sure in the face of the film’s philosophical uncertainty.

 

Suture (1993)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

“Our physical similarity is disarming, isn’t it,” a man says to another he calls his brother as a car speeds down a highway. The statement is confusing considering the person in the seat next to him couldn’t be further from his physical likeness; not only is the man warm and handsome where he is is pinched and cold, but his passenger is Black, and he is not. This is the puzzling premise for Suture, an indie neo-noir that asks us to believe that these two men are doppelgängers when they are absolutely not. Starring Dennis Haysbert and Michael Harris, this odd situation is only exacerbated by the stilted dialogue, philosophical pontificating and the arty, heightened directorial techniques. There’s murder, amnesia and identity theft at play, filtered through stunning black-and-white cinematography, not to mention plenty to chew over where racial theory and identity is concerned.

 

Cam (2018)

Where to stream it: Netflix

In a digital age where you can be catfished with the download of a JPEG, the time is ripe for films about doppelgängers on the internet. Cam, starring an excellent Madeline Brewer, takes this a step further – what if someone was identical to you, hacked your account and proceeded to livestream their way through increasingly dangerous and reckless scenarios? While the film is acutely aware of the horrors inherent with “Being Online,” it doesn’t concern itself with glib dangers-of-the-internet stuff filmmakers were talking about two decades ago. Nor does the film pass judgement on sex work; Cam portrays Lola as an intensely hardworking and creative individual. As such, the horror stems from the theft of her livelihood, not from some sort of moral message about her recklessness; we’re genuinely disturbed that there is a malevolent force poised to steal her hard work.

 

Us (2019)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

With those iconic red jumpsuits and gilded scissors, Jordan Peele’s excellent horror Us gave us terrifying iconography and countless memorable scenes. When a family of four find themselves stalked and attacked by doppelgängers who claim they have been banished and “tethered” to a dingy underworld, they must fight to survive this mystifying turn of events. The moment where Lupita Nyong'o’s double first speaks in her terrifying, distorted rasp sends a shiver down the spine, and the film’s final twist reflects the slipperiness of identity and the innate psychological fear of being replaced by an unknown malevolent force.

Petite Maman is now showing in UK cinemas.

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