David Cronenberg’s profoundly creepy Dead Ringers is a film that defies pigeonholing as deftly as it eludes any single interpretation of what it all adds up to. Ill-suited to pat genre classification and easy summation, the stylish surrealism that is Dead Ringers combines Cronenberg’s by now trademark technology-fetish / body-horror motifs with the most compelling elements of the psychological suspense thriller, the romantic triangle drama, and the horror film.
Dead Ringers is a fictionalized treatment of a true story about prominent New York physicians, Stewart and Cyril Marcus; identical twin gynecologists who made headlines in 1975 when their bodies were discovered in their Manhattan apartment, a week after their deaths, the result of trying to kick mutual barbiturate addictions. The story was dramatized in the 1977 novel, Twins by Bari Wood &Jack Geasland, and it is from this source that screenwriter David Cronenberg and Norman Snider draw their inspiration for Dead Ringers.
|Jeremy Irons as Elliot Mantle|
|Genevieve Bujold as Claire Niveau|
|Jeremy Irons as Beverly Mantle|
In Dead Ringers, the functional dysfunction of the psychologically and emotionally co-dependent twins, Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Irons), threatens to unravel when Beverly (the introvert to Elliot’s self-possessed extrovert) falls in love with a patient they share. Both professionally and sexually, albeit unknown to her. Claire Niveau (Bujold) is a famous movie actress with a slight masochistic streak and a functioning drug problem (“It’s an occupational hazard.”) who arrives at the twins’ fertility clinic to discover why she can’t get pregnant. When the doctors discover her infertility to be the result of a trifurcate cervix – a rare condition branding her a “mutant” in the eyes of the doctors – Elliot reacts with clinical detachment while Beverly responds empathetically. This fundamental psychological difference in the makeup of the otherwise identical, obsessively-attached brothers, coupled with the introduction of an intelligent, self-aware female into their otherwise male-centric existence, is the catalyst for a disturbing series of events culminating in a darkly tragic conclusion that is as unexpected as it is inevitable.
|Claire: "I think you two have never come to terms with the way it really does work between you."|
Typically, if one wants to see a film about heterosexual men both afraid of and repulsed by women, yet have no recourse but to have sex with them lest they be forced to confront the broader sexual identity ramifications of their deeper emotional and psychological affinity for men; one has to go to a Judd Apatow movie or watch one of those reprehensibly misogynist romantic comedies unvaryingly starring Gerard Butler or Katherine Heigl.
In dramatizing a narrative wherein two gynophobic men share an emotional and psychological bond between them that is infinitely deeper than either is capable of with a woman (a childhood flashback reveals the brothers to be fascinated by the prospect of sex without touching, and their interest in females never more than clinical. “They're so different from us,...” laments Elliot), Dead Ringers and the story of the Mantle twins works as a macabre metaphor for the kind of casual misogyny one encounters frequently in motion pictures about male/female relationships. Only this time, the ugliness lurking behind the oh-so-subtle "bromance" jokes and anti-female subtext is writ large and in blood.
Similarly, the brother's deep-seated curiosity about (and revulsion to) female anatomy not only reflects a common cultural attitude (director Cronenberg discusses on the DVD commentary track how the film's gynecological setting was enough to scare off many studios and several prospective leading men), but when coupled with the psychological fallout of the twin's crippling interdependency and drug use, their propensity to see women as "the other" and the "disruptive element," leads to the nightmarish invention and utilization of gynecological surgical instruments more befitting instruments of torture.
|Think What You Can Keep Ignoring|
Woman as smokescreen for homosexual anxiety
While Dead Ringers ranks as my absolute favorite David Cronenberg film of all time, I can well imagine that its considerable unpleasantness and inherent creep-out factor contributed to it being thoroughly being ignored by the Academy, come Oscar time. Which is really a pity, because you’d have to look far to find a braver, more persuasively committed job of acting than Jeremy Irons archives in his performance(s) as the tragically conflicted Mantle twins. No matter what one feels about the movie as a whole, there’s no getting around the fact that Irons carves out two distinctly separate personalities by means of the most intriguing subtleties. His refusal to resort to the showy and obvious roots this fantastic story in a reality that makes it both horrific and deeply moving. (When, in 1991, Irons won the Best Actor Academy Award for Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune, he thanked David Cronenberg in his acceptance speech.)
Jeremy Irons’ virtuoso dual performance is Dead Ringers’ main attraction, but for me, in spite of its technical and stylistic brilliance, the film wouldn't have worked at all were not for the incisive and grounded contribution of Geneviève Bujold. A film rooted in laying bare the adolescent male fear of women and their bodies would simply not work were the primary female role handed over to the typical Hollywood actress who has molded herself into fitting a male fantasy of a woman.
Geneviève Bujold, an actress whom I've always admired (but I will never understand what the hell she was doing in Monsignor) and whose praises I sing in my post about her breakout role in Coma, is always assertively, intelligently herself. She's an image of woman as a real, complex, flawed individual. A human being, not a fantasy or fetish creature. As portrayed, her Claire Niveau is a credible threat to the union of the brothers because no matter how much they may try to see her otherwise, she remains a mature, fully fleshed-out person, not an object.
|Beverly: "My Brother and I have always shared everything."|
Claire: "I'm not a thing."
Bujold is such a vibrant catalyst that Dead Ringers suffers a bit when her character disappears for a long stretch during the film's second act, but I derive so much pleasure out of what she brings to each scene that she absolutely makes the film for me. It's so integral to the plot to have the Mantle twins' stunted image of women contrasted with a decidedly dimensional, fleshed out example of woman as she is, not as she's perceived; and in the casting of the always-intense and interesting Geneviève Bujold, Dead Ringers hits home the discrepancy between male adolescent sexual fixation and a mature emotional and physical attraction to a human being of the opposite sex.
As one might well guess with a film about identical twins, themes of identity, duality, and role-playing figure prominently in Dead Ringers. A pair of identical twin call-girls arrive at Elliot's hotel suite. He asks one of them to call him by his own name, the other to call him by his brother's. Claire, who makes her living being different people, has a very strong sense of identity, yet likes to play gently masochistic sexual games (Elliot: “She’s an actress, Bev, she’s a flake. She plays games all the time. You never know who she really is.”) In the case of Elliot and Beverly, the two exploit the inability of others to tell them apart, yet their own nebulous sense of identity make them susceptible to the same subterfuge. In spite of thinking of themselves as individuals, in all things emotional and psychological, neither of them can really ascertain where one ends and the other begins.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
People who know me might be surprised to find a film as morbid and depressing as Dead Ringers listed among my favorites, for as is my wont, I tend to shun (on principle) movies I consider to irresponsibly wallow in the gross and violent for the sake of sensation. Of course, the key factor here is responsibility. For as long as I've been a fan of movies I've held to the belief (not a particularly popular one) that movies do indeed affect, influence, and condition us. I feel that as a viewer, I am in a vulnerable position with a filmmaker (one cannot “unsee” what has been shown) and I expect them to respect the power their images have. Nothing bores me more than when weighty issues like death, pain, human suffering, and violence, are treated as purely escapist entertainment by geek directors caught in perpetual states of arrested development in need of venting the fallout of their experience-deprived childhoods.
David Cronenberg’s best, most mature, and fully-realized work.