Dead Ringers

(Canada - 1988)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Heidi von Palleske, Barbara Gordon, Shirley Douglas
Genre: Horror
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg & Norman Snider based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood & Jack Geasland
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Composer: Howard Shore
Runtime: 115 minutes

David Cronenberg is a director that's wrongly well known for the special effects his movies contain. I say wrongly because they are what they should be, a tool that allows his vision, his philosophy and self-discovery, to come to life on his chosen medium, film. Dead Ringers is the perfect example of a movie that proves this to be the case. It's a horror movie that essentially contains no violence. If we didn't know better, we'd think the film also contained no special effects. Since we do, we realize the film is a constant special effect, for the new moving split screen technique employed makes it impossible to tell that the world wasn't blessed with two Jeremy Irons. The film is astounding from a technical perspective, but if it had nothing to explore, who would care? That's never been a problem for Cronenberg, probably the most unheralded visionary and philosopher of all directors, his problem is there's so much metaphor allusion and sophistication to his so called "trashy and exploitive" material that the discovery may not come immediately for the audience, if at all. Cronenberg will lead you, but that's it. It's your job to think about and consider the material he's presented to figure out what it all means or your choice not to. In the end, while the technology is usually futuristic and the characters bizarre, it's comes down to understanding human nature.

The "National Enquirer" topic of Dead Ringers is gynecology, but it's simply a metaphor for the subject of the film, the split between body and mind. Sex is a bodily pleasure your brain says you want, but actually understanding the way organs work creeps most people out. There's also a jealousy factor associated with men, as someone else looks at the part of "their" women "reserved for them" and understands it a whole lot better. Then there's the patient client relationship where both act like there's no possibility for eroticism or any kind of feeling. Unless they are being paid, not many women will open up for a man they aren't intimate with, and when you think about it men who are paying are generally doing so for the illusion of that intimacy. That said, you probably can't find one gynecologist (or doctor as shown wonderfully by Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut) that will admit he's intimate with his patients in this regard. Consider these factors and look at how they translate into the story presented in Dead Ringers.

Based loosely on a true story, the film is about two incredibly closely bound identical twins named Beverly and Elliott Mantle (Irons). With those names, they sound more like a married couple. In many ways, in spite of being two males who have no sexual interest in one another, they are. Personality wise, Beverly possesses the feminine qualities and Elliott the masculine. The important thing to realize is that although technically they are not physically joined like Siamese twins, the couple is not separately complete. In their minds, they are a collective whole.

We first see the two when they are very young. Even then they are brilliant intellectuals, but they can only see in scientific terms. Like most members of their sex, they are drawn to women. They want to understand them, but the only way they know how is from a clinical standpoint. They are afraid of the essence of humanity, that everyone has their own experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. They are able to block this aspect out, and examine in the only way they know how. In fact, they are so brilliant at it that the "Mantle retractor" becomes the standard gynecological tool while they are still undergraduates.

They make a brilliant duo because they do different things and are great in their roles. Elliot is the great spokesperson. He is outgoing and charming (although ultimately uncaring), into the glamour of his role. Beverly is the great researcher and practitioner. He connects with his patients because he's more sensitive, but has none of the success sexually that Elliot does with women because he's shy and reclusive.

One of the most telling lines of the movie is "the beauty of our business is you don't have to get out to meet beautiful women." It's shows the twins interest, but also magnifies their flaw, that they really don't know what to do with them once they have them. They never have any kind of relationship with them; they just use them for sex. Sex for these two, like everything else, is a clinical formality. There's no passion to it. In fact, it's so much like surgery that at one point we see that Elliot clamps "his patient" down and doesn't release her until "surgery is over" (orgasm).

At one point, Elliot tells Beverly that he'd still be a virgin if it weren't for him. It's true, Elliot's skill is in recruiting the women, and the women don't know the twins are sharing them. If the women's goal is more than a one-night stand, they'll come to like Beverly better because he can connect with them on an emotional level. Beverly's problem is their world is male dominated, and Elliot is a master manipulator. He sees the relationships through the tainted view of Elliot, and Elliot doesn't consider Beverly's success to be a positive thing. He considers it his weakness, and due to the connection Elliot's weakness is also considered by Beverly to be Beverly's weakness.

The twins' world is turned upside down when Beverly and one of their patients, Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold, in top form although overshadowed by Irons) fall in love. Claire is a famous actress who is out of town a lot, enough not to have heard of the famous Mantle brothers. She comes to realize that sometimes she likes this man and sometimes she doesn't, he's "subtly schizo." She's the first that Beverly cared enough about to risk compromising his unwritten pact with Elliot for. She soon finds out there's two of them and meets Elliot, who treats her with inhuman cruelty in hopes of eliminating her from the equation. These twins share everything; they are two that function as one or at least try to. That's why Elliot wants to get rid of Claire, because they can't physically share her anymore and he's jealous that Beverly has something he wants but can't have.

Dead Ringers asks the question how far does being identical go? It's important to realize that you can never look at yourself the way an identical twin does in real time unless you are using a mirror. When these two look at each other, they see themselves. They have no privacy, the presence and need of the other is smothering and all consuming. The more Claire points out Beverly's differences, the more Beverly becomes like Elliot.

Beverly's transformation "into Elliot" is aided by drugs. Originally he was going to prescribe the best drugs for Claire, but he winds up taking them with her and he's hooked. Between the drugs, his newfound realizations, and his rejection of the feminine role in the relationship with Elliot, Beverly becomes insane. The real cause for the insanity though is their dream of transcending the individual beginning to crumble. I don't think he takes drugs because Claire does or because they are tempting, I believe it's because he knows effecting his body alters his reality. Like everything else in their lives, Beverly's insanity is an experiment. Beverly is seeing how much his changes will effect his brother, testing things like do they really have individual nervous systems.

One of the main themes that stretches across David Cronenberg's highly underrated body of work is terror from within. Cronenberg is not trying to make us believe that they are really one, that is the delusion of grandeur the Mantle brothers have been attempting to perpetrate all these years. They've been successful in their belief that they could always count on each other, but the failure of their belief that nothing and no one could come between them results in their wall of perpetual "self reliance" tumbling down.

Even when Beverly believes Claire has cheated on him, he's not able to forget about her and return to the life when he was "one" with Elliot. Instead, certainly aided by the drugs, he starts thinking all women are mutants. Claire is a mutant because she can't have kids due to her uterus having three openings, but others, I think, are mutants because they are capable of producing identical twins. Beverly has sinister gynecological tools created to use on these creatures. In doing so, it actually goes against the Mantle brothers dream because the creation of the technology on his own is Beverly expressing his uniqueness, his characteristics such as creativity. The scene where he first operates with them is the eeriest, creepiest, and most chilling in the film. It's basically the end of Beverly as a practicing doctor; his reputation has been ruined.

Elliot hasn't done anything wrong, but he can't go on without Beverly. Beverly's research is the basis for all his work, but it goes beyond that. He can't cut himself loose. Elliot had been fairly immune to Beverly's experimentation before, but now he begins to give up on his own life and delve into the drugs, darkness, and instability that has become Beverly's life. At this point, Beverly is too far gone and destroyed to change for him, so he must change for Beverly to keep the dream alive. Some people find Elliot's dip into madness unbelievable, but his line "whatever is in his blood stream goes directly into mine" explains everything you need to know about how these two think and just how far reaching their dream is.

Both twins retreat, but even alone together they cannot regain what they once thought they had. The "gynecological instruments for working on mutant women" become tools for separating Siamese twins. They are afraid of this separation, and although an "operation" is performed, separation is not its purpose. Instead, what they are doing is attempting physical "re-attachment:" committing suicide as a last ditch attempt to reclaim their delusion. They believe they are achieving their dream by doing this, but the viewer knows that this act/suicide just proves the fallacy of their delusion and is a violent end to their dream.

The movie is fascinating on many levels, but the key to its success is the performance of Jeremy Irons. Irons, among the best actors currently working, has given many memorable performances is quality movies - Moonlighting, The Mission, Reversal of Fortune (Oscar winning), Fatale, M. Butterfly, Lolita, and so on - but none top the work he does here. He creates two distinctly unique halves - so perfectly nuanced that we instantly know which brother he's playing - that converse with each other regularly, then slowly blends them together. It's the ultimate descention performance because of the balancing factor. Two different characters dropping is harder than one, but on top of that Beverly has to drop and at the same time become more Elliot like and vice versa.

Cronenberg's direction leaves nothing to be desired. He's covered all bases from the awesome performances of Irons to the dark cold claustrophobic settings to the expert pacing that gives plenty of time to develop and get us into the Mantle brothers to the haunting score by Howard Shore. He's created an intense psychological horror that is engrossing throughout, beautiful yet sad, painful, eerie, and creepy. It's clearly his best work up until this point in time, and one could certainly make a case for it being better than eXistenZ.




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