Friday, June 28, 2013


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 that the source of her infertility is a trifurcate cervixa rare condition branding her a “mutant” in the eyes of the doctorsElliot 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.
Dead Ringers is an irresistibly offbeat psychological drama that generates tension not only from its examination of the mystifyingly synergistic relationship between identical twin brothers (with all its attendant homosexual panic and latency), but from a unerringly pervasive sense, sustained throughout the film, that at any moment this dark-hued character study can erupt into unimaginable horror.
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.
A History of Violence
The threat of female-directed violence runs through Dead Ringers like an exposed nerve. In this scene where Elliot visits Claire on the set of her film, Cronenberg provocatively stages the scene in the makeup trailer with Bujold sporting false bruises and injuries. 

Dead Ringers is set in the world of gynecology. A world nevertheless presided over by condescendingly patriarchal men who make use of women's bodies, often with little regard for their feelings in the name of research and medical progress (per the unexplained scene of a woman leaving Elliot's office in near hysterics). Elliot and Beverly's casual disregard for women is manifest in their habit of interchangeably treating (and sleeping with) their clients without benefit of disclosing their true identities. The latter habit effectively keeping at bay the twins' nervously unaddressed issues of homosexuality; a prominent element in the novel that is merely hinted at in the film.
Think What You Can Keep Ignoring
Woman as smokescreen for homosexual anxiety

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 twins' 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.

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 what 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 showy and obvious means of conveying the differences between the brothers roots this fantastic story in a reality which makes Dead Ringers a thriller both horrific and deeply moving. (Irons must have felt the same for in 1991 when he 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 one of those indistinguishable Hollywood actress types molded to fit into the standard objectified fantasy image of womanhood. 
Geneviève Bujold, an actress whom I've always admired (although 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 figure As portrayed, her Claire Niveau stands as a credible threat to the union of the brothers because no matter how hard 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.
Heidi von Palleske as Dr. Carey Weiler
A casualty of  Dead Ringers having so many fascinating central characters is that Elliot's relationship with Carey is barely fleshed out. Although von Palleske is an intriguingly sensual presence of somewhat ambiguous allegiance, her role is so sketchily drawn that I had no idea until researching this post that she was a fellow physician. 

As one might well guess with a film about identical twins, themes of identity, duality, and role-playing figure prominently in Dead Ringers. In one scene, a pair of identical twin call-girls arrive at Elliot's hotel suite and he asks one of them to call him by his own name, the other to call him by his brother's. Bujold's Claire is not immune to identity issues either, for while she has a strong sense of herself as a person, in her profession she is called upon to assume the identities of many different people. In her private life, she likes to role play as well, in the form of 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.

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 wallowing in perpetual states of arrested development and using film as a venting mechanism for their sensation-deprived childhoods.
I don’t trust directors like Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, and Michael Bay, because, as far as I'm concerned, their sensibilities are stuck somewhere between middle school and Mad Magazine. They have nothing to say to me. Directors like David Cronenberg (add to that David Lynch, Michael Haneke, Nicolas Roeg, and of course, Roman Polanski) may have taken some time to find their artistic voice, but they understand that you can deal with any subject in film if it is dealt with honestly and responsibly. That honestly being that violence, cruelty, and death come at a human cost, and that there is attendant pain and suffering as a result of people's action. I find I can watch a film about any dark subject when it is dealt with it in a manner true to human experience, and by doing so forge a deeper understanding of personality, humanity, and behavior. Violence rendered as a cartoon, for something to ooh and ahh over, for conscience-free consumption...that's about as close to a definition of obscenity as I can imagine.
Dead Ringers is a film I can watch repeatedly and still marvel at the visual cohesion it has with its subject matter. It's a beautifully bleak-looking film with a haunting, mesmerizing score by Howard Shore. It's intelligent, daring, and unflinchingly honest in the depiction of its characters and in the exploration of its themes. Dead Ringers is not perfect, but I personally consider it to be David Cronenberg’s  best, most mature, and fully-realized work. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Argyle, here. Another excellent essay. I'll have to watch this again soon. Loved it/was disturbed by it when it came out. Irons, Bujold: where are the great filmmakers for these people? Completely concur with your paragraph on directors and honesty. I have tried to watch Django and the nazi one a couple of times (based on some respect for earlier efforts) and can not make it very far. The apparent glee (no matter what ends are served) is too much for me. That said, I think Jamie Foxx's somberness (as far as I have watched) seemed appropriate and admirable. As I've gotten older I find that violence seems serious (mortal, I guess) even in make-believe, not something to invoke casually. Or the fact that it is invoked casually says something about our times that is even more upsetting. And I'm not a fuddy-duddy. "The White Ribbon" or "Cache" are incredibly disturbing and I'm glad to be stirred up. Or some of the Cohen's work. Thanks, Ken for addressing this so well. Obvious statement: I think film acting is almost fundamentally about photographing a human being. Jeremy Irons has an innate depth of character and experience that shapes itself into a shaded, complex character. Without that (and I don't know how it is earned or developed)you are left with a simple, sadistic Pitt or DeCaprio. And they have been perfectly fine in other roles. Anyway, "Dead Ringers" viewing in the near future. And "Anne of a Thousand Days" which I have been wanting to re-watch lately. I remember being blown away by her in that.

    1. Hi Argyle
      A wonderfully articulate comment on your own response to the way violence is handled in films! You are on point with many film-goers when you say you are glad to be "stirred up" by disturbing themes in films, but that weighty topics demand an artist of some maturity. When my young nephews crash their toy cars together and crate mini scenes of mass destruction with their toy-box arsenals...I find that to be an appropriate response to death and mayhem. As a mature man, I loathe watching a film made by a fully-grown individual that presents death and violence in terms appropriate to what my 8 year old nephew can absorb. Unless it's a children's movie (which most of today's action films are, I suppose) I resent it.
      Like you, I once admired Tarantino's work, but his stuff of late is a waste of my time. He has become the Jerry Lewis of violence in my eyes. His movies seem inconsequential.
      You make another excellent point about how human experience shapes the faces of the actors we watch, and it is watching that life experience play out over an actors face that enriches a film and a performance. The cast of "Dead Ringers" has marvelously lived-in faces. Both Irons and Bujold have "life" written on their faces and real emotion in their eyes. The callow beauties of today have waxworks smooth skin and eyes as expressive as marbles. As good as Leonardo Di Caprio is (and he is very good) I've always found his performances suffered due to something he can't help...the boyish countenance of his face inhibits expression. Age will probably very kind to him, but each time I see him it's like watching a teen playing dress-up. I long for the map of life to show on his face.
      Lastly (because you bring up so many salient points I could star another blog post), in our age of CGI technicians and traffic cop directors, where ARE the filmmakers for people like Irons and Bujold? Every director who shows promise at Sundance seems to be in a race to sell out as fast as they can for the nearest blockbuster franchise. Actor's directors are being replaced by people who are good at navigating heavy-duty special effects teams.
      Yes, "Dead Ringers" is definitely worth a rewatch (for an 80s film it is remarkably undated)an i adore "Anne of the Thousand Days" which I first saw about three years ago. Wow! Talk about a young upstart holding her own against a cast of seasoned professionals! Thanks Argyle, a pleasure as always!

  2. Count me as another who grew up loving "Anne of a Thousand Days." There's just something about Genevieve Bujold's face - there is no denying it.

    As for "Dead Ringers," Well, Ken, as a woman I don't ever want to see those instruments of torture again! Terrifying, even more so than your usual horror movie. Just to look at them makes me hurt. That's how I felt when I first saw it, and that's how I feel now.

    On another note, I am so delighted I have found your blog. You are a great writer who understands cinema. I have a saying: "I don't watch product." And neither, apparently, do you. Your thought-provoking essays on many of my favorite movies from childhood (and I was clearly way too young to be watching many of them) has really added something to my day. Keep up the excellent work, you have a new and dedicated fan.

    1. Hi Tanyadiva
      On the commentary track to "Dead Ringers", Jeremy Irons makes reference to Genevieve Bujold having the most fascinating mouth. I agree, she has an incredible, intelligent and beautiful face.
      i have four sisters, and none of them have seen "Dead Ringers", but I've often wondered how the horror of the film plays with women. My guess is that many would take your's not an experience one would want to revisit too soon.
      Thank you very much your your flattering words, as it pleases me no end that you enjoy this blog and seem to be a true film fan who (like me) somehow got exposed to many mature films at a very young age. I have heard the phrase "I don't watch product," but I wish I could steal it. It's a marvelous encapsulation of the kind of attitude towards film that Pauline Kael had. It could be art, it could be trash, but it just couldn't be something packaged and sold for the sole purpose of making money.
      I'm so happy you find my blog to be worth your time. Thanks!

  3. Thank you for reviewing the underrated of "Dead Ringers". I saw it when it was new and I remember that I thought it was a good film. Then it seemed to slip away from the world's consiousness; no one ever seemed to mention it.

    Was it too clinical and classsy what with Jeremy Irons as the main actor? Were the main characters too unlikeable? It was hard to find for a while, maybe because it wasn't like the average horror film.

    I want to see it again after reading your review that explores the different levels of the film. I too am a fan of genevieve Bujold.

    I love what you wrote about "geek directors"! So true. Those guys really should read what you say about them and how you compare the with more mature directors, so that they might actually grow up.

    1. Hi Wille
      Very cool that you like this film! It's very strange when really excellent films fall out of the public's consciousness. I think the easiest explanation for "Dead Ringers" is that it is a rather unrelentingly unpleasant film that doesn't give the audience the "out" of it being a fantasy. No monsters, no invincible slashers, this is just an ugly part of the human psyche.
      I personally find it just a fascinating character study, and it has always eluded me that the film isn't referenced more for its relationships and insights into male female sexual relations.
      But it's always nice to love a film not absorbed fully by the masses, isn't it?
      And Bujold...she I can watch endlessly-and her voice...

      As for the "geek directors" I suppose I'm just an old curmudgeon, but I get tired of these guys who seem like every experience of life they saw on film or in a comic book first. Nothing new comes out of them beyond regurgitated pop culture. As the saying goes, "There's no there there" when it comes to what these guys have within them to express.
      Give me complex, interesting directors like Hitchcock and Cronenberg, anytime.
      Thanks, Wille. you're always so nice in your comments to me.

    2. Yet, those directors continue to make movies and people flock to see them. Sigh.

      Interesting what you say about monsters and murderers on film: they are an excuse to blame all the bad stuff going on. Films like "Dead Ringers" shows some of the unpleasant sides of human beings that people don't like being reminded of.

      I've always remembered a scene from the film: Genevieve B. expressing her disaproval of the costumes she's expected to wear to the costume designer. It was chilling and funny at the same time! Cronenberg and his wife appear in the scene.

    3. Hello Wille
      I was unaware of Cronenberg and his wife appearing in the scene you reference, but I remember the scene vividly. Apparently, at least according to Irons' DVD commentary, Bujold's outspokenness in real life matched that of her character. She had definite ideas (and good ones, it turns out) about how her character should look onscreen.

  4. I remember being astonished by the following aspect of Irons' acting. For most of the movie, he does an excellent job of making the twins distinct, and I found this very impressive. But in the final scenes, he makes them much more similar, and yet somehow I found this impressive too!

    Anyway a fine choice for DAWLCIF, as always.

    1. Hi Allen
      That's a very good point you make, I think. The characters do indeed undergo a kind of melding of personalities towards the end, a bit of role reversal that obliterates the small distinctions they held. To convey this an a believable way, that still doesn't cause us to forget which particular character we're looking at IS indeed an impressive bit of acting! As i say, a very good point and excellent observation.
      Glad you're a fan of the film, and thanks again for taking the time to comment!