Lately it's been a study of contrasts on and off the screen.
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12 Sep 2013 - 11:00 AM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2013 - 12:06 PM

Film festivals are conduits by design: you come to them, they bring the world to you. This is especially true for TIFF press and industry delegates, most of whose screenings take place in a single Cineplex, downtown Toronto's enormous Scotiabank Theatre. But it seems the world is a little too much with us, this year—at the ever-expanding TIFF, and at the Scotia Theatre, where crowding and cell phone drama distracted from the films. Toronto's legion of famously cheerful volunteers looked battle-worn by the festival's halfway point. By then I'd seen several festival workers lose their composure, and if you've been to TIFF you know that's a little like seeing a Golden Retriever cry.

Tensions reached an apex on Monday, when a film critic frustrated by rampant cell phoning in a late screening of Ti West's The Sacrament, left the theatre and called 911 to report an act of possible piracy. Contra a festival like Telluride, where every screening I attended began with a warning that cell phone use would result in immediate ejection, it was reported that TIFF has revised its policy for press and industry screenings, and is now more cell phone-friendly. If the badge lines are any indication, industry outnumber press at TIFF several times over: the latter are here to watch and write about films; the former are here to schmooze and deal, while watching films, if necessary. It's the old art vs. commerce debate dramatised in 21st century style, and it brought out the absolute worst in people. A Tuesday afternoon screening of The Double (pictured), Richard Ayoade's abstruse second feature, was twice interrupted (and, for this viewer, made quite unpleasant) when a man screamed bloody murder at a stubborn cell phone user.

The Double is one of a notable number of TIFF films directed by actors (Ayoade is a British comic performer, but worked steadily as a writer and director up to his 2010 feature debut Submarine). The success of last year's TIFF darling Argo may have emboldened the selections committee: this year's program includes films from Jason Bateman (Bad Words, a spelling bee comedy); Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who's here with Don Jon; Ralph Fiennes's Dickens drama The Invisible Woman; Mike Myers' Supermensch, a documentary about Hollywood talent manager Shep Gordon; James Franco's Child of God; and Keanu Reeves's directorial debut Man of Tai Chi. (Perhaps responsible for the whole trend, Ron Howard doesn't really count anymore, though he's here with the Formula 1 racing drama Rush.)

Along with Bateman's crowd-pleasing Bad Words, The Double made the most striking impression on TIFF crowds. Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine adapted the script from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella about a shy office worker (Jesse Eisenberg) driven mad by the arrival in his life of a devilish doppelganger (also Eisenberg). Those unfamiliar with the Dostoevsky might be reminded of the more recent Youth in Revolt, in which sometime Eisenberg doppelganger Michael Cera plays a shy young man who invents a troublemaking alter ego in order to attract the girl of his dreams.

In The Double that girl is played by the luminous (and seemingly ubiquitous) Mia Wasikowska, Eisenberg's co-worker at a spectacularly dank office facility run by Wallace Shawn but headed by “The Colonel,” a figurehead out of David Lynch. Lynch and Terry Gilliam appear to be two of Ayoade's touchstones for The Double, which plays an atmosphere of dream-like portent against a darkly expressionistic, atonal score. The cramped, oddly analog world of The Double feels like a kind of future-past: as in a film like Wristcutters: A Love Story, which depicted the afterworld as a slightly shittier version of this one, here characters negotiate a maladapted landscape plagued by loneliness and miscommunication. Eisenberg splits his arrogant boychick persona in two for the parts of Simon James and James Simon, the former “a bit of a non-person,” the latter the kind of guy who says things like “I would tear the asshole off an elephant for a piece of trim I wanted that much” and is beloved by all anyway.

In his second film, Ayoade's risks (and a wonderfully game cast) suggest a gratifyingly unique sensibility, as playful as it is unsettling. His world of emotional dissonance and lonely unease is so immersive and lovingly thought out that at its most delightfully twisted it begins to feel like home.