“I’ve often thought that there should be beauty contests for the insides of bodies.”
Cronenberg’s 1988 film is a harrowing character study involving not a single protagonist but two. Specifically, twins Stewart and Cyril Marcus who were found dead in their apartment of barbiturate withdrawal on July 19th, 1975. They were immensely successful Gynaecologists who lived in New York. While founded on the Marcus event, the film was also loosely based on Bari Wood and Jack Geasland’s 1977 novel Twins (the title of the film was changed to “Dead Ringers” to avoid being associated with the Schwarzenegger comedy also released in 1988). Cronenberg had originally toyed with the idea of adapting the story back in 1981 but it was meant to be that the film would follow the success of The Fly in 1986. However, it was difficult to convince financiers that drugs, tragedy, and gynaecology would draw an audience, which led Cronenberg to set up his own production company.
Identical twins, Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Stewart and Cyril), have such distinct personalities that they complement each other brilliantly. Elliot is the outgoing PR man, Beverly the withdrawn genius. Together, they form the best of both worlds, an entity comprised of hypostases. Elliot writes the articles and gives the speeches and Beverly deals with patients and research. They are miracle workers, enabling formerly barren women to conceive. Everything in their life is shared: accolades, wealth, women. Often they pretend to be each other, exchanging lovers, giving each other’s’ speeches, and rarely are such ruses exposed.
When they were children, their obsession with human reproduction manifested in their university days when they invented the Mantle Retractor which revolutionised gynaecological practice. Setting up a well-appointed private clinic, they lived comfortably to middle age. It is until the examination of actress, Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), that the brothers celebrated a fluid existence. Their interest is peaked when they discover that she has a rather unusual uterus and ceaseless libido. Beverly falls madly in love with her; Elliot (the one who initially examined her) only intends to bed her and pass her on to Beverly. After a while, Claire begins to wonder why “Elliot” (as she knows them) is assured one moment and timid the next, temperamental then tentative, laidback then anxious. When their secret is revealed, she eventually chooses Beverly which tears a rift between the brothers of which the only remedy is drugs.
Paranoia and mental collapse dictate the latter half of the film as Beverly, with his fragile nature, begins to spiral into drug addiction and despair. Claire attempts to help him with tranquilizers and Elliot suggests barbiturates before finally becoming hooked himself. Beverly becomes increasingly unhinged, soon convinced of the existence of “mutant female genitalia” leading him to invent and manufacture new “gynaecological” instruments – the likes of which should never be used on human women. When Beverly attempts to conduct an operation with such instruments in the operating theatre, Elliot is able to stop him but, as Beverly recovers, Elliot’s mental health begins to diminish. They are irrevocably attached: mind, body, and spirit.
Jeremy Irons effortlessly plays both brothers with full immersion into their duality: the masculine and feminine halves of the human psyche, there cannot be one without the other. Essentially, he plays the same person but with subtle changes in body language and syntax; flawlessly exact in the interplay between the two performances. He never overacts preferring to intimate rather than emphasise a gesture.
Inseparable magnetism is the mythos of the twin concept and Cronenberg captures that mystery perfectly. He has always been a filmmaker obsessed with how the body is interconnected with the mind – a theme which has persisted in his career since the beginning (sex and telepathy in his debut, Stereo, or Crimes of the Future where a disease is caused by a line of cosmetic products killing the entire population of sexually-mature women; in addition to Videodrome, Crash, eXistenZ, A Dangerous Method, Shivers).
Technically, the film seamlessly edits Irons’ performances (often with prepared sets and motion-controlled cameras) and is truly a marvel to behold. Cronenberg is such a visceral filmmaker whose films tend to spark raw nerves, but this is his most tragic and, in its way, most restrained. Throughout, he is analytical of his subjects, presenting it all in a cold detached way but striking the viewer with a sudden burst or realisation of emotion. It is a tale of perfect union; two halves that could never be one.