For much of the 1980s, Cronenberg’s oeuvres offered stories which featured characters who underwent dramatic physical, almost sci-fi like transformations as a result of accidents or deep, troubling psychotic manipulations. The ‘inner’ troubles and fears of the protagonists were given outward physical symptoms, as if the body became the victim of the psychological and emotional symptoms themselves. It’s horrific and fascinating material on many levels, a kind of material that carries over into this film, Dead Ringers, albeit in a slightly different and unique fashion. The psychological and emotional isn’t married to the physical in any Videodrome-esque or Fly-like manners, full of bizarre and overtly monstrous disfigurations. Rather, the physical uniqueness of the protagonists lies in the fact that they are perfect twins, both gynaecologists, and both played by Jeremy Irons.
In many respects they share several critical characteristics, notwithstanding their bodies. Both are geniuses, having demonstrated their skills as doctors and researchers in the field of gynaecology. They also live in the same apartment. Lastly, both brothers tend to experience the same things, share the same things, such as women. Having set that up, the film reveals how different they are in terms of personality and behaviour. Elliot Mantle is the more outgoing of the two, maybe even a bit on the flamboyant side, whereas Beverly Mantle is, at his core, more shy, quiet and definitely more sensitive. These similarities and differences can be a double-edged sword for the brothers however. On the plus side, one can replace the other around the office or at meetings if the latter is unavailable, mostly because no one can tell the difference between the two and they can pretend to be one another seamlessly. This has in fact helped them throughout there educational and professional careers, as is seen a little bit early on and in various other scenes throughout the film. There is, obviously, a much darker side to all of this awesome twin brother hoopla. It is hinted at early in the film, mostly through dialogue, that neither has truly experienced something until both of them have. While on a surface level this could be taken as just a sign of how close Elliot and Beverly are with one another, as brothers who have spent their entire lives together, the story slowly but surely reveals how literal such a claim actually is. When one brother experiences something bad and unsettling…the other brother goes down with him. This dark revelation behind the nature of this symbiotic relationship begins when the famous actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) steps into their office one day. It is Beverly who looks after her at first and discovers that Claire has an astoundingly rare inner deformity: her body has three cervices. This amazes both Beverly and Elliot, the latter whom, skirt chaser that he is, proceeds to snatch a date with her and eventually…you know…
It is when Elliot pushes Beverly to go after her as well (and in her of course) that a slow psychological deterioration begins for the Mantle twins. Beverly isn’t as frivolous in his ways as Elliot, and the former clearly begins to take a genuine liking to her. Claire has a dark side of her own however. She may be rich and famous, but she is addicted to drugs and enjoys some rough sexual exercises. Still, she reveals a vulnerability due to her infertility, a vulnerability that attracts Beverly very much (possibly due to a vulnerability of his own) For all their genius, the one thing the Mantle Twins have never understood is ‘woman’. A woman, ‘women’ in general. Sure, they know the inner body of the woman like the back of their own hands (which I presume are identical), but they don’t know how to really treat a woman as a human being, socially. They are brilliant scientists working in the field of gynaecology, but haven’t the faintest idea how to be good boyfriends, lovers or husbands. With Beverly’s emotional attachment to Claire, the latter becomes, unwillingly, a destructive element in the ‘Mantle twins sage’, as Elliot so eloquently puts it in the film. Very soon, Beverly is hooked on drugs, but on a far more dangerous level than Claire. Her realization that she has been screwing two people as opposed to one (Elliot went for her first, followed by Beverly but without Claire ever knowing it) also creates strain. They are so similar but yet so different. If Beverly truly loves Claire (a love that comes across as inexperienced, or simply heightened due to all the drugs he’s taking), but he and Elliot are so much alike, what does that mean for his relationship with her? Coupled with Claire’s own awkward fancies, a trap has been inadvertently been set for the brothers, the kind of trap that only fate and bad judgement can provide.
I watched Dead Ringers for the first time a couple weeks ago and had an immediate reaction it. I opted not to write a review just yet, preferring to re-watch several scenes in order to better grasp what I was attempting to comprehend and digest. I popped DVD again a few nights ago, but instead of only watching the noticeable sequences, I ended up re-watching the entire film. Virtually everything in it is noticeable. Witnessing the deterioration of the Mantle Twins as they begin to truly experience the ‘medical fact’ stated by Elliot late in the story, that ‘whatever flows through he’s blood stream goes through mine,’ was simply fascinating. I keep sounding like a broken record by stating that there is so much going on in Cronenberg films. I promise that this will be the last time I type out that phrase in the marathon, but there is, once again, a whole lot going on in this movie. The story handles marvellously the curse than is both the brilliance and the ineptitude of the Mantle twins. As I wrote above, they can both master woman’s bodies on a scientific level, on a medical and biological level, but when a woman as challenging as Claire enters their lives, the seed of destruction has been planted, whether she ever intended to play that role or not (she evidently didn’t since she takes a genuine liking to Beverly as well). As the drugs take over Beverly’s mind and behaviour, he begins to wrestle with his own self, that is, his affections for Claire and his fascination with the female body, particularly those he deems are ‘all wrong.’ It also appears that the reality of Mantle twins soon collapses onto Beverly first and then Elliot second. When juiced up whatever drug he has been taking in his office, he presents himself to a patient as ‘One of the Mantle Twins.’ No one can tell them apart anyways. I thought that short scene was intriguing upon my initial viewing, but a few nights ago, I thought it was downright chilling. Then of course comes the later scene when Elliot explains to his lover (Lynne Cormack) that, in order for he and Beverly to return to normality, they just need to get synchronized. This process of synchronization only carries them to their own destruction however. Neither twin could really ever be separate from the other. They are two different physical entities but their ties run deep, very deep.
The Mantles are in a losing battle from the start it seems. For that reason I felt the movie played out like a tragedy. There was something almost poetic about how the fate of the brothers is handled. The fall of great personalities often makes for an interesting watch, and to see the Mantles, who had a lot going for them, lose themselves within themselves (what they don’t understand and what they think they do understand). In fact, I wrote earlier that Claire is the seed of destruction for the twins, which I still hold true to a certain degree, but I estimate that it goes deeper than that. The Mantles, due to their biologically, psychologically and emotionally tight and complex relationship, are a walking time bomb for themselves. It was only a matter of time before their eerily close relationship exploded, with the full after effects felt. Like Cronenberg has done so often throughout his career, a plot that could seem fit for a drama or horror of lesser status (seeing the future, tv taking over the brain, man turns into giant fly) and uses it in a tight, and richly layered story.
Much of success of the film begins with the sublime performance of Jeremy Irons to play both Elliot and Beverly. There are so many subtleties in what Irons does with the two roles, so many little cues and ticks which hint some of the troubling aspects of their relationship to be found in this performance. The actor has given several fine, fine performances throughout his long and distinguished career but I think he may have been at his very best here in Dead Ringers. I honestly felt as if I was watching two different (but obviously similar!) characters on screen in the same movie, and I can’t imagine that being an easy task for an actor to accomplish. Whenever I have read up on Dead Ringers in recent weeks, Geneviève Bujold doesn’t receive as much praise as Irons, and this is quite understandable to a certain degree, but I wouldn’t overlook her entirely. Her Claire is a dirty mixture of sweetness and danger. She may end up loving Beverly, but she has some unhealthy qualities of her own, least of which being her drug issue which Beverly adopts. Her curiosity and eventual determination to see the Mantles as completely different beings is both a blessing and a curse. She may not have the amount of screen time awarded to Irons, but I certainly felt some gravitas about her performance.
Composer Howard Shore has worked on so many of Cronenberg’s film, but for some reason, I think his title piece, which plays as the opening credits are shown, is arguably his best work. It has such a sweet quality to it. It sounds like a theme music fit for a regular, emotionally packed film about sibling drama. It doesn’t feel like it should belong in a movie that ends up being as twisted as this one, but it works incredibly well.
From a stylistic point of view, Dead Ringers represented an interesting new step for Cronenberg. Gone were the gross monsters, disfigurations and evil children. Here was a very tragic tale of twin brothers and their inseparable and ultimately destructive ways. From this point onward, the writer-director would rarely venture back into the world of the surreal, only opting to helm two films that had any kind of sci-fi or supernatural elements to them afterwards (Naked Lunch and Existenz). A new Cronenberg was emerging, some would say a more mature Cronenberg. They shouldn’t have kidded themselves. The packaging may have been different, but the great mind behind the matter would still be at his old subversive games for years to come.