“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.” True to Cronenberg’s assertion, Dead Ringers is both wholly original and uniquely disturbing. It dares the very taste buds of cinema with concerns so far beyond the polite, and so far beneath the easy shock, it could have been made by an alien: a being with a healthy disregard for the normal operations of commercial cinema, but with a unique sense of the human condition.
Since 1976, audiences worldwide had been aware of Cronenberg as director of some of the most shocking, perverse, and original scenes of body horror ever conceived for the cinema. His early excoriating excursions into science and the flesh were often dismissed as low-budget “schlock horror” by conservative critical establishments. But Cronenberg had long since matured as a filmmaker, even as his obsessions remained intact. And over the years, in the tradition of Europe’s greatest auteurs, he had imposed an entirely new, hermetically sealed sensibility on cinema: Felliniesque, Bergmanesque, and now Cronenbergesque.
Dead Ringers’ starting point was the stranger-than-fiction real life story of identical twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus. Discovered partially decayed and almost naked in their New York apartment in 1975, they had died from barbiturate withdrawal.
While magazine articles and a semifictionalized book—Twins—intrigued film executives, they were nervous about the subject matter. Initiated in 1981, the movie was to pass through several script writers, potential backers, and one serious false start before Cronenberg eventually assumed the role of main writer and producer in 1988.
Dead Ringers eschews the cliché of the good twin/bad twin. In Cronenberg’s hands, Elliot and Beverly Mantle are one soul, split into two bodies and two mutually dependent minds at the point of conception. Issues of good and bad become issues of maleness and femaleness, here destructively divided. Elliot’s sexual and professional conduct is as confident and ruthless as Beverly’s is modest and sensitive. As both man and woman, they are a closed circuit, their stability precariously preserved by the virtue of their splendid isolation.
Patient Claire Niveau, a woman possessed of a wondrous but quite useless three-chambered womb, becomes the circuit breaker. Beverly’s love of her—heart and soul—reveals that the latter cannot be annexed. Separation can be a terrifying thing, and Beverly’s descent into mental collapse and drug addiction inevitably delivers both twins to a fate befitting all rare creatures.
Dead Ringers’ stunning trump card and major special effect is Jeremy Irons. Cronenberg had already relinquished his early visceral/visual techniques of blood and gore for an emotionally affecting cinema centered on the disintegration of the mind as opposed to the flesh. Irons’ portrayal of both Mantle twins is not only an acting tour de force, but also a realization of the director’s most heartbreaking testament to the mind/body split.
The movie is relentlessly interior in its depiction of personal chaos. We are allowed only two glimpses of the exterior world, in the first and penultimate scenes. Carol Spier’s brilliant production design keeps us locked in a strange, alien mindset purposefully reminiscent of an aquarium. Elliot and Beverly, far from being demystified, are viewed as exotic creatures by virtue of a cruel twist of biological fate. As Cronenberg has observed: “Dead Ringers is conceptual science fiction, the concept being: ‘What if there could be identical twins?’ I’m suggesting that’s impossible. I can imagine a world in which they are only a concept, like mermaids.”
Ambitious motion-control camerawork, allowing the seamless “twinning” of Irons, is both staggering and kept firmly in its place. Mere technology is never allowed to distract an audience from the film’s ultimate subject. This has little to do with twins or gynecology. Dead Ringers is a definitively melancholic meditation on our very existence—on the sadness of what Cronenberg has termed “unrequited life.” If the movie seems tantalizingly, even dangerously, personal, it is because it delivers its maker’s sensibility and aesthetic so directly and artfully. Its troubling existence is as cathartic as it is exhilarating.
Chris Rodley is an independent filmmaker and the editor of Cronenberg on Cronenberg and Lynch on Lynch.