When Jeremy Irons won an Oscar for his icy but humorous performance in “Reversal of Fortune”(1990), he thanked David Cronenberg at the end of his acceptance speech. He had a very good reason; in Cronenberg’s unforgettable medical drama “Dead Ringers”(1988), he gave a stunning performance, or a pair of stunning performances, as the peculiar but prodigious twin gynecologists who are threatened by real emotions and then plunged into the self-destructive chaos where only exit for them may be becoming the one again as they were conceived at first in their mother’s womb.
Dr. Elliot and Beverly Mantle have already shown their brilliance even when they were just undergraduates in medical school. They devised a special retractor which would be the golden standard in their field, and they are now running a fertility clinic in Toronto with considerable reputation among their peers and patients. On the professional level, they treat their patients well, but you may prefer a female gynecologist after watching this film. They are indeed professionals doing their work, but a man examining an internal part of a woman’s body is definitely not a comfortable thing to watch to some of you.
If you think this is uncomfortable, then here is a more disturbing thing about the fabulous Mantle boys. They resemble each other so much that they frequently swap their identities and clinic works whenever it is needed, and they even share their women, most of whom are the patients in the clinic. This strange relationship has been working well for them; Elliot, a dominant brother, publishes the valuable research done by an introverted brother Beverly while Beverly sleeps with the women handed to him by Elliot.
Now it sounds a lot like those sordid stories usually decorating the front page of tabloid papers. You may not be surprised to know that the movie is based on Bari Wood and Jack Geasland’s lurid fiction which was inspired by the sensational real-life case of the Marcus brothers in Upper East Manhattan, who were also well-known twin gynecologists like the ones in the film before their decadent private life was exposed by that tragic incident.
The movie is not a pleasant experience at all, but it is also compelling to watch thanks to David Cronenberg’s cold, clinical approach to the sensational aspects of the story. Many unpleasant things like an exploding head or a cleavage in belly can happen in his films, but he always observes them with fascination and intelligence not that far from what I observed from my colleagues working at the biological science department, so we keep watching the weird moments in his movies regardless of whether we love them or hate them in the end. I was one of the people who were left confounded by the messy goriness of “Videodrome”(1983), but I could not forget that bulging TV screen into which James Woods’ character put his head, although it was too bad that its rather prophetic idea was regrettably botched in the confusing plot. In case of the surgery scenes in “Dead Ringers”, I do not find the doctors wearing red clothes realistic(As some of you know, red color can exhaust their eyes during long hours of surgery), but they are memorably creepy with a certain religious tone.
With the considerable help from computer-controlled moving-matte photography (the movie was one of the first trials at that time), Jeremy Irons always makes the drama convincing with his masterful handling of the twin characters on the screen. There are subtle hints of the personality differences between them here and there in his performance, so you can always sense who is Elliot and who is Beverly even when they pretend to be each other. Irons also makes it sure that you can never be sure about where the line differentiating them exists in the overlapping area of their personalities, and that’s why his performance has that uncanny quality sometimes observed from identical twins in real life; there are differences, but you cannot separate one from the other easily.
The ambiguity in their relationship becomes more unclear and chaotic while Irons and Cronenberg push each of them in the opposite ways as the plot progresses. They are separate entities on the physical level, but can they be really separated from each other while maintaining each own individual identity? Even Elliot, who has always been a confident half, has some confusion about his identity. In the scene where he spends some private time the twin call girls, he instructs one girl to call him Elliot and then demands the other girl to call him Beverly.
Elliot and Beverly have managed their relationship in equilibrium despite their confusion and doubt, but a major crisis comes upon them with their latest patient Claire Niveau(Geneviève Bujold), a movie actress who has been struggling to have a baby. While Elliot is excited by having a movie star as a patient to sleep with, Beverly is fascinated by encountering a curious case of rare deformity; she cannot get pregnant because she has a trifurcated cervix(no, it is not possible that she can have three babies at once because the sperms will lose their way in her womb).
Since they were very young, the Mantle brothers has always regarded sex and women in their analytic approach(In the odd opening scene, we see these brothers seriously discussing about sex as little nine-year-old boys). In their view, their female patients are more or less than the objects to be examined and studied and, sometimes, exploited, but Claire is a lot different from other patients – especially in Beverly’s view. Although he is reluctant at first about the sexual relationship with her due to her kinky sides, he comes to really like her, and that puts his brother as well as him in a very troublesome situation. Beverly does not want to share her with Elliot, but, as one terrible nightmare scene suggests, they are essentially psychological Siamese twins who are bonded together in their mutual mind far more strongly than they have ever thought.
While trying to resolve their difficult circumstance stuck in this triangle, the Mantle brothers find themselves slowly descended into the territory of twisted obsession and dark madness by external and internal factors. While getting closer to her, Beverly gets addicted to the drugs abused by Claire, and he becomes delusional and paranoid when Claire is absent for a while due to her work outside Canada. Later in the story, he devises a new set of surgery instruments as the radical approach to his ‘mutant patients’. You will probably not want to know what can be possibly done with these weird tools which look a lot like torture tools from the medieval era(they also remind me of those dreadful tools belonging to the sadistic dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors”(1986), by the way).
Elliot tries to get their situation under his control because his entire career depends on Beverly’s works, but he is helplessly and willingly dragged to the medical condition of his brother as his other half, and that ensues more chaos and insanity in their private life as a result. What eventually happens at their home is a sad, desolate tragedy accompanied with a gloomy birthday party and the following bloody ritual. Cronenberg has gained lots of notoriety through the gory special effects in his horror films, but, in this case, he thankfully leaves most of the gruesome details of this horrific scene to our imagination, which is already fueled enough by the image of these grotesque surgery instruments ready for their first trial. Even only one thin line of blood flowing below one character is enough to make you cringe, and Peter Suschitzky’s cool cinematography and Howard Shore’s mournful score make this tragic moment both terrifying and depressing.
With “The Dead Zone”(1983), “The Fly”(1986), and this film, Cronenberg began to depart from his previous B-horror films, and he moved to the next step of his illustrious career after this phase. His focus moves from physical horror associated with freakish events to psychological drama associated with the darkness of human mind, and I was not so surprised when he made a fairly conventional period drama “A Dangerous Method”(2011). After all, the bodies of the characters in his early works were the stages for their inner conflicts to be erupted, and a historical drama about Dr. Zigmund Freud and Dr. Carl Jung looks like a logical choice for Cronenberg’s career.
While I find myself always drawn to “Dead Ringers” by its terrific technical aspects(as far as I remember, I watched it five times since 1998 through VHS, cable TV, and DVD), I also recognize several weaknesses in this coldly fascinating drama. Such a story like this really needs woman’s touch, and Geneviève Bujold, who was the beating heart of a sterilized medical thriller “Coma”(1978), gives a strong performance as the sole warm spot of the story. Though she feels humiliated to realize what’s going on between her and the fabulous Mantle brothers, Claire really loves Beverly, and she is sincerely concerned a lot about his fragility. But she is not a weak woman who will succumb to the twin’s demands easily just because she loves one of them, and she makes her point clear to Elliot; she only wants Beverly, not Elliot.
It is a shame that the movie mainly uses Bujold’s character as a plot device during the second half. Considering how Geena Davis’ performance as the lover of the doomed hero in “The Fly”(1986) was important in making its crisis and subsequent climax work with devastating dramatic effects, that’s a big disappointment. The movie also never digs deep into an interesting contrast between Claire and Cary(Heidi Von Palleske), a fellow doctor who is officially Elliot’s girlfriend but would not mind much about sleeping with Beverly. At least, von Palleske and Irons have a good scene where Cary dances together with the twins at their apartment while “In the Still of the Night (I’ll Remember)” by the Five Satins is played.
Whether you like the movie or not, Jeremy Irons’ tour-de-force performance in the film remains one of his great works. It has been the standard to be compared with the other memorable twin performances since the movie came out, and I instantly thought of his work when I saw Nicholas Cage in “Adaptation.”(2002) or when I saw Edward Norton in “Leaves of Grass”(2009).
I do not think I love “Dead Ringers” wholeheartedly, but its creepy memory still sticks to my mind. As a matter of fact, I could not help think of its spooky poster showing overlapped faces when I saw one of the promotional posters for “A Dangerous Method”, which also featured overlapped faces in an equally disturbing fashion. Did Cronenberg think of the Mantle brothers and Claire Niveau when he made that film which was about an intellectual triangle between three doctors? I have no idea, but, as far as I know, the separation was more successful in “A Dangerous Method”- and nobody was dead in that case despite some serious aftereffects on the persons concerned.