124. DEAD RINGERS (1988)

“When was the last time a gynecologist was in a movie, even as a figure of fun? There’s something taboo there; something strange and difficult.”–David Cronenberg

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING: , Genevieve Bujold

PLOT: Elliot and Beverly Mantle are brilliant twin gynecologists, specializing in fertility, with a client base of rich women. Elliot, the more outgoing of the pair, will seduce a client, and then Beverly will also romance her, pretending to be his brother. The twins delicately balanced psychological co-dependency is disturbed when Beverly falls in love with one of their conquests, a pill-popping actress with a deformed uterus.

Still from Dead Ringers

BACKGROUND:

  • Dead Ringers is loosely based on a a real-life case involving twin gynecologists. Their story was fictionalized and turned into a best-selling novel (“Twins“) by Bari Wood and Jackie Geasland, which became the basis for the screenplay by Cronenberg and Norman Snider.
  • William Hurt and Robert De Niro each passed on the roles of the Mantle twins.
  • Irons’ performance as twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle nabbed him Best Actor awards from the New York and Chicago film critics associations and a runner-up prize from the LA film critics; but the project was too strange to be endorsed by the Academy Awards, which procrastinated until the following year to recognize the actor for his role as accused murderer Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (Irons credits Dead Ringers for an “assist” in nabbing him that statuette).
  • Worried that it might not be weird enough, we initially declined to place Dead Ringers on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies—but the public decided this omission was one of our biggest oversights, as the movie won its section in our third readers choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The blood-red scrubs narrowly beat out the bizarrely barbed “instruments for working on mutant women” as the movie’s most disturbing medical prop—largely because the twins were presumably sane and sober when they chose this surgical garb. Both props appear together onscreen in a scene where Beverly, high on downers, makes a shambles of the operating room, even snatching off the patient’s gas mask to take a whiff of anesthetic himself.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When the plot synopsis contains the words “twin gynecologists,” you know you’ll be traveling into territory off the beaten path. When it’s David Cronenberg directing a story about twin gynecologists, you can expect something even further out there. While Dead Ringers is a drama, it’s a drama for horror movie fans, one that’s ultimately creepy and unnerving enough to rise to the level of “weird.”


Original trailer for Dead Ringers

COMMENTS: However unlikely Cronenberg’s tale of obsession, drug abuse, and gynecology

might appear, there’s nothing impossible about any of the twisted plot twists of Dead Ringers. In fact, the climax of the story—successful twin gynecologists found dead from barbiturate abuse in their apartment—is based on true events. The film is elegantly stylized but, other than a single erotic Siamese twin dream sequence, it’s firmly grounded in the real world. Still, it’s only when you sit down and analyze Dead Ringers afterwards that you can think of it as anything approaching a normal, rational story. While you’re in the movie’s grips, it’s a weird and uncomfortable experience; the film equivalent of being put into stirrups while a masked man probes your insides with experimental instruments of his own invention.

Despite its ostensible grounding in reality, there’s a constant psychological pall over Dead Ringers; the sense that it’s not really about the things it’s depicting, but that the whole tale is an allegory for something deep and hidden in the human psyche. Start with the movie’s basic ingredients: twins, and gynecologists. Identical twins are unusual, but not so uncommon that they are completely alien. Still, to the average person without a doppelgänger, the phenomenon of twinning is strange: two persons identical, yet unique, whom we assume have a special psychic connection that we can’t possibly understand. Twins are a mildly uncanny phenomenon. Male gynecologists, on the other hand, are slightly creepy. They impose an intimacy on women that’s usually reserved for lovers. Though they’re medical doctors and therefore eminently respectable, there’s always some doubt about them in the back of our minds: why would a man seek a job that requires him to examine and manipulate female genitals? Alone, twins and gynecologists are both slightly strange. Put these two uncommon elements together, though, and the ick factor increases exponentially: especially when the doctors’ dating practices are, to say the least, highly unethical. The yucky scenario of them sharing their clients as sexual conquests plays both on our uncomfortable suspicions about twins (they might try to trick us into thinking one of them is the other) and about gynecologists (they might abuse their privileged status to take advantage of their patients).

Playing identical twins is as tough a challenge as any actor is likely to draw in a career, and Dead Ringers would be doomed to failure if not for Jeremy Irons’ skill. As shy Beverly and suave Elliot, the actor gives a fascinating and multifaceted performance. The (appropriately) stiff Brit lends a touch of class, and even manages to make the unsavory twins sympathetic as they spiral towards a professional and personal nadir of barbiturate withdrawal psychosis. By utilizing differing mannerisms and energy levels (Bev is jittery where Elliot is detached), Irons makes it so the viewer can immediately differentiate which twin is which about 80% of the time. That 20% uncertainty about who you are looking at on the screen adds an extra uneasy edge to a picture that’s already morally queasy.

The plot depends on the twins’ identities bleeding into one another. Symbolically, twins represent two halves of the same personality. The fact that one of the twins here is named Beverly—a name usually reserved for a girl—actually suggests that as a pair, the twins represent a complementary whole, Carl Jung’s anima and animus united. Professionally, they work together as a team, with intellectual Beverly coming up with new ideas and outgoing Elliot serving as the twins’ public face. Elliot, on the surface is the dominant twin, turns out to be the more dependent of the pair. When Beverly starts spending more and more time with Claire, he is threatened by his brother’s independence. In the final reels he frets about the need to “get synchronized” with his other half, even if that means getting himself addicted to Seconal. He asks Claire, “Am I really that different from Beverly?” and is distressed when she coldly answers that he is; he does not want to be separate. In Bev’s dream the two brothers are connected by a ribbon of flesh. When we watch the twins’ mental and physical deterioration, what we are seeing, metaphorically, is a single individual disintegrating; and, although most of us can’t identify with losing a twin, we can share a fear of “falling apart.”

On the other side of the anxiety equation is gynecology—literally, the “study of women,” although of course in practice the discipline restricts itself to examining women’s reproductive organs. From the beginning of the movie, the Mantle twins are students of sex, and of women; as young boys in the prologue, they compare the mating habits of humans and fish (preferring the later, because fish don’t have to touch). Later, they are as distant from women as they are fascinated by them. Elliot may be a Lothario, but females are only a business and a hobby for him. He only loves himself—and his other half. Beverly is equally fascinated by women, but is almost afraid of them. He views them as strange creatures; one might say, as mutants. So what better woman to come between them than a unique lady, one with a mutated uterus? “You present a confusing element to the Mantle brothers saga; possibly a destructive one,” Elliot tells the intruding dame. Indeed, Claire Niveau (i.e. “nouveau,” the “new” element in the Mantle dynamic) does destabilize the twins’ sick symbiosis. By falling in love, Bev breaks the brothers’ implicit pact to keep a clinical distance from women. He treats Claire as an equal to his brother, rather than as an object to be studied (and profited from). If the twins are, psychologically, one person, then by falling in love with someone else Bev tears apart their narcissistic whole. The twins’ dilemma is actually a horrific manifestation of the fear of intimacy, the sense that by surrendering and giving oneself to another we will destroy a part of ourselves. For Bev/Elliot, that self-sacrifice is too much to ask, and love leads to tragedy rather than fulfillment.

“From David Cronenberg, who, in The Fly, made the fantastic real. Now, David Cronenberg makes reality the ultimate fantasy,” says the narrator in Dead Ringers‘ trailer. And for once the ad copy is true. The story here is far-fetched but based in reality. Yet, despite the fact that it’s structurally a drama, Dead Ringers feels unreal, like a fantasy or a horror movie; or, like a deeply disturbing psychological fable. The movie’s world is claustrophobic; almost all of the shots take place indoors. Interior spaces often represent the mind (see Repulsion), especially when characters retreat and hide inside them, as the twins do at the end of Dead Ringers. In the last act we see Beverly peering out of a window, afraid of the external world, complaining to Elliot that “you don’t know what’s going on out there… the patients are getting strange. They look alright on the outside, but their insides are… deformed.” That points to the other type of interior in the obsessively inward-looking Dead Ringers, the inside of the body (at one point Elliot jokes that they should have “beauty contests for the insides of bodies—you know, best spleen, most perfectly developed kidneys.”) The Mantle brothers have devoted their professional lives to peering into the private parts hidden inside women’s bodies. What they find on the inside, like Claire’s biologically useless trifurcated uterus, can be fascinating, but is not always right. Dead Ringers is a movie speculum that pries the Mantles apart and peers into the hidden parts of their shared psyche. What it sees is fascinating but not pretty, and the diagnosis is not favorable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Part of why ‘Dead Ringers’ is so haunting is that it finds something universal in the brothers’ story, yet also keeps their overriding strangeness in sight.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

Dead Ringers doesn’t seem to take place in a world that’s recognizeably our own, which helps; you’re so disassociated that you latch on to the twins.”–Matthew Dessem, The Criterion Contraption (DVD)

“Trite, weird, ridiculous, uneventful, sick. Cronenberg at his worst.”–Moira Sullivan, FilmFestivals.com

IMDB LINK: Dead Ringers (1988)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Dead Ringers (1988) – The Criterion Collection – The Criterion page for its out-of-print edition of the film includes Chris Rodley’s Dead Ringers essay and an icky gallery of the prop “instruments for operating on mutant women”

Psychological Determinism in Dead Ringers – Philosophy professor Dan Shaw sees Dead Ringers as a movie about determinism, seen through a Freudian lens

List Candidate: Dead Ringers (1988) – Our original review nominating Dead Ringers as a “List Candidate”

DVD INFO: Given their indifferent treatment of other cult classics (*cough* the works of Ken Russell *cough*), it’s a surprise Warner Home Video actually did a fine job on their 2005 reissue of Dead Ringers (buy). Perhaps they were shamed by the fact that the Criterion Collection had already put out one of their typically lavish editions, in 1998. Whatever the reason, their Ringers is something of a treat, with a commentary by the mellifluous Jeremy Irons serving as the main course. The trailer, brief bios of the main cast and crew, a seven minute “behind the scenes” featurette (actually a contemporaneous promotional video), and a series of short interviews with Irons, Cronenberg, producer Marc Boyman and co-screenwriter Norman Snider are side dishes. For dessert, try the humorous “Dead Ringers Psychological Profiler” quiz (save room, you’ll want to go back for seconds).

Speaking of the Criterion Collection version, it’s still available (buy), although you may have to pay a small premium for a pristine copy. The Criterion commentary track features contributions from Cronenberg, Irons, editor Ron Sanders, production designer Carol Spier, and director of photography Peter Suschitzky. There are also galleries devoted to the opening credits, the “instruments for operating on mutant women,” and twinning effect footage, along with an “electronic press kit” with the trailer and a featurette.

The film is also available to rent or download digitally (Dead Ringers digital copy), sans special features, of course.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Mighty Utar.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “124. DEAD RINGERS (1988)”

  1. To facilitate discussion, I’ve copied and pasted the comments from the previous Dead Ringers review onto this post.

    Alex Kittle says

    This sounds incredible. I’m actually hoping to watch more of his films this month since there’s a Cronenberg blogathon coming up. I hadn’t even heard of this one but I’ll definitely seek it out!
    August 14, 2011, 9:03 pm

    Cassie says

    where is the Cronenberg blogathon??
    August 16, 2011, 11:59 pm

    Mofo Rising/Rob says

    Has there been a better actor to pair up with David Cronenberg than Jeremy Irons? This is a profoundly uncomfortable film, and I don’t think it would have been possible with anybody else than Jeremy Irons, who puts in a powerhouse performance. How did it get released into theaters, with acclaim? It was part and parcel of the late ’80s and early ’90s, a very weird time in cinema.

    I remember catching parts of this when it showed up on HBO, and it was too much for my young mind to want to have to deal with.

    I saw it later, and I thought it was great. Much better than Cronenberg’s follow up with Irons, M. Butterfly.

    Much is made of Cronenberg’s obsession with “flesh”, but less talked about (and why?) is his obsession with insane sexuality. I avoided “Crash” for years, but when I finally watched it I was very impressed by just how far Cronenberg was willing to let that train go off the rails.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like the stuff Cronenberg has got up to lately, but I can’t imagine they’ll ever let him attack cinema the way he did in the ’90s.
    August 15, 2011, 3:47 am

  2. At first I thought that the scene where Beverly finds his “mutant” tools in an art exhibit was a hallucination from his withdrawal. It goes to show the expectations Cronenberg builds.

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