At one time or another, most of us have heard an acquaintance say “I swear I saw your doppelgänger the other day, this guy/girl looked exactly like you.” Or perhaps you’ve been that apparent “doppelgänger” and were mistaken for someone else; if you’re Canadian you probably apologized for not being that person they thought you were. However it’s rare that we ever spot someone whom we consider to be our own double, which is the premise of Doppelgänger Paul (or a film about how much I hate myself), an offbeat Canadian comedy with a darkly dry humour that blindsides the viewer at its best moments.
The movie opens with a series of letters exchanged between Karl and Paul, establishing that Karl spotted Paul several weeks prior, and believing him to be his own doppelgänger has been obsessively following him ever since. Despite claiming to feel violated and angered by the confessions of his stalker, Paul carries on the correspondence and insists that they meet. When they rendezvous by Stanley Park’s polar bear enclosure, Paul immediately picks up on the curious fact that they look nothing alike.
While they don’t share much in the way of physical resemblance, we quickly learn that they share many other qualities, such as middle class guilt, depression, loneliness and, as the parenthetical title suggests, a propensity towards self-deprecation. All of the above is established in the early minutes of the film, the rest is a series of amusing events brought on by the meeting of these two which I will not attempt to recap and spoil in this review.
Both characters are given almost equal weight while maintaining a strange chemistry throughout. While Paul is more the protagonist, it is Karl played by indie film regular Tygh Runyan that gets all the best lines, which he delivers with deadpan absurdity. Lines like “I wanna smash your face. Yeah, I’m just stating what I want, dispassionately” have him come off as unintentionally hilarious and should earn him the nickname “Dry Runyan.”
Another thing that struck me while watching this film was how fresh the story felt. Pretty much any movie I watch these days will bring to mind several similar ones that have come before it, and while I’m not saying this is the most original film ever made, I would at least claim that it is without a doppelgänger. When asked who, if anyone, informed or influenced some of the film’s style or themes, co-director Dylan Akio Smith cited the Mumblecore movement, Miranda July, Charlie Kaufman, author Paul Auster and Hitchcock’s Strangers on at Train. Smith also worked as a cinematographer and an editor on the film, while long-time collaborator/screenwriter Kris Elgstrand shared directing duties.
When asked about the significance of the polar bear enclosure where several key scenes are set, Smith tells about how that was just one of those serendipitous things that happen while making a film. “We were originally supposed to film those scenes by a whale pool, but it just didn’t look very good on camera.” It wasn’t until after they found the cheaper, more aesthetically pleasing enclosure that they learned the story of its last occupant, Tuk. In 1994 when they began to phase out the Stanley Park Zoo, Tuk was the only animal they decided not to move due to his old age. He lived three more years and apparently went mad with loneliness while becoming a “symbol for the shared guilt of society.” This tied in so well to the film’s themes that they even decided to make the poster a picture of a polar bear, it’s just too bad that those unfamiliar with the story of Tuk will not understand the bear’s significance.
I suppose one recent trend that this film does kind of follow is that of the bro-mance picture. More than doppelgängers, this is a movie about soulmates, but I doubt anyone would want to go to see a film called “Soulmate Paul.”