Sunday, October 11, 2020

REWIND: Dead Ringers (1988, David Cronenberg)

TSPDT Rank #433

Initial viewing: 9/26/2011

Dead Ringers represented a major turning point in David Cronenberg’s career. Up to this point, his reputation had been based mainly on his penchant for body horror, starting with low-budget squirm-fests like Shivers and Rabid and then evolving into the multi-layered paranoia of Videodrome and achieving commercial success with a graphic re-imagining of the ‘50s horror classic The Fly. However, nothing in Cronenberg’s early career prepares one for the twisted psychological horror of Dead Ringers. Starting with two vaguely creepy topics (identical twins and gynecology) as a starting point, Cronenberg combines them to create something both more unsettling and relatable than might be expected.

In the film’s opening sequence, a woman’s gynecologist tells her that he feels that humans should be judged on the beauty of their internal organs rather than focusing exclusively on their outward appearance. However, not only does this particular woman have an aesthetically beautiful (if practically useless) three-chambered uterus, but she also happens to be a famous movie star anxious to get pregnant by any means possible. So it doesn’t take long for her to sleep with her suave gynecologist. 

That is to say, it doesn’t take long for her to sleep with both of them. Beverly and Elliot Mantle (played in an awe-inspiring dual performance by Jeremy Irons) are twin brothers who share a gynecological clinic, as well as an apartment. Every part of their lives are divided up according to their individual strengths and personality traits. Beverly is in charge of conducting research and seeing patients, while Elliot takes care of public appearances, meetings and after-hours dinners with benefactors and patients. One of these is Claire (Geneviève Bujold), the movie star who is seduced by Elliot but who falls in love with Beverly.

So far, this doesn’t sound like much more than an unusually twisted soap opera. Which is essentially what it is, on the surface. But the deeper down the rabbit hole we go, the more disturbing Beverly and Elliot’s predicament becomes. Although it initially seems that Claire will be able to release Beverly from Elliot’s controlling grasp, it turns out that the two can’t be so easily separated. They are spiritual Siamese twins, connected by an inner bond that they don’t even understand themselves. When Beverly tries to explain the implicit rules of the twins’ relationship to Claire, she replies “I think you two have never come to terms with the way it really does work between you."

What follows is the brothers’ attempt to make sense of this mystery, which of course can never be solved. Cronenberg’s approach is frustratingly vague and subversive; it burrows into our psyche and makes us question how we relate to those who are close to us. Even if we don’t have an identical twin, what if we find ourselves in a relationship so intimate that we can no longer survive on our own, can no longer relate to the outside world around us? As squirm-inducing as the moments of body horror are--like the dream sequence where Claire chews at the fleshy tissue connecting Beverly and Elliot at the waist, or Beverly’s drug-induced attempts to use his “radical” surgical instruments on a “mutant” patient--what’s more horrifying is the feeling that some forbidden truth about human relationships is lying just beneath the surface of Cronenberg’s sordid examination of emotional dependency and interwoven identity.

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