David Cronenberg: Dead Ringers (1988)


Dead Ringers is among the saddest and strangest films of David Cronenberg’s career. It’s also one of his best. Centred on two remarkable performances by Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers is a cerebral examination of two individuals sharing one soul, essentially exploring the mind-body philosophical split that has fascinated Cronenberg throughout his career by personifying that split within two identical twins. As such, Dead Ringers is clinical and dispassionate in ways that alienate many viewers, but like The Fly and The Brood before it, it also stands as one of Cronenberg’s most emotionally affecting works. It is philosophically fascinating, but it also rises above its admittedly-detached point-of-view to become a remarkable tragedy about human weakness and the alienation of the individual. It’s a contradictory text, yes, but also a stunning work of craft and as unsettling a drama as exists in modern cinema.

Inspired by the real life tragedy of twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus (who were found dead of barbiturate overdoses in their New York City clinic in 1975), Dead Ringers follows the brilliant twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons), who descend into a nervous spiral of addiction and obsession after Beverly becomes involved with a famous actress, Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold). The project took almost 10 years to get off the ground, as Cronenberg and co-writer Norman Snider (who wrote Cronenberg’s CBC dud, Secret Weapons, in 1972) struggled to convince producers of the necessity of the subject matter. Eventually, Cronenberg succeeded in accruing a budget and an actor to star in the project, but the resulting film proves to be as alienating to viewers as it was to the producers Cronenberg unsuccessfully pitched to.

In many significant ways, Dead Ringers is a perfect marriage of alienating form and content. Cronenberg, the most clinical of horror directors, chose a subject matter, gynecology, that most men and many women find uncomfortable. He mentions that “What makes gynecology icky for people is the formality of it. The clinical sterility, the fact that it’s a stranger.” Add that to the misogynistic leeriness of female procreation and sexuality that fuels many men’s disgust with gynecology, and you have a recipe for discomfort. Cronenberg weaponizes this discomfort at every turn throughout the film.

The opening credits, which features drawings of medieval gynecological equipment while Howard Shore’s lush score plays, signal discomfort and alienation from the get-go. The tasteful lilt of the opening music and the quality of the cast involved—Bujold and Irons—suggests a prestige picture, but the strange images of gynecological equipment conflict with this tasteful presentation. Cronenberg upsets any suggestion of prestige throughout, even though many of the film’s elements belong in the sort of artful European dramas that were so popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski.

No scene better encapsulates Cronenberg’s shameless perversity than when Beverly meets Claire for dinner at a fine restaurant and Claire matter-of-factly asks him to “Tell me about my uterus,” causing her dinner companion to choke in disgust. Beverly rises to the bait and proceeds to tell her (and her uncomfortable companion) about how Claire has three cervical openings in her uterus, all while he dines on a gourmet meal in an exquisite setting. The setting suggests a tasteful scene, but Cronenberg can’t help himself from upsetting any aristocratic notions of nicety and polite filmmaking.

The alienation of the film’s approach to sexuality and gynecology only escalates as the film progresses. Early in the film, Beverly tells Claire that he’s “often thought there should be beauty contests for the insides of human bodies,” provoking a mental image in Claire and the viewer that is bizarre and may suggest a latent murderous desire on his part. Later, when Beverly begins to relish his sexual liaison with Claire, she tells him, “I want to be humiliated.” He responds by having sex with her while she’s tied to the bed with medical tubing and surgical tongs; in many ways, this sexual perversity and exploration of S&M culture prestages Cronenberg’s deep-dive into fetish in Crash.

Cronenberg’s tools for unsettling the audience culminates with the production of the “Gynecological Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women,” hideous claw-like metal utensils that Beverly creates after becoming addicted to pills and proving incapable of performing his normal duties as a gynecologist. In one of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes, he attempts to use these tools on a woman during a surgery, berating his medical assistants for their unfamiliarity with the equipment and squeamishness at their ghastly appearance. He later argues that there’s nothing wrong with him or the tools, but instead it’s the “women who are wrong,” as if Beverly is blaming Claire, and by extension, all women, for his incapacity to function in the world. Beverly’s increasing disgust with women, and his callous mishandling of their bodies, leads many viewers to accuse the film of misogyny, but as is the case with The Brood, Cronenberg is more interested in exploring the ramifications of a certain type of male ego and the fallout it creates for women than he is on excusing his characters of their thoughts and feelings. The extreme discomfort that such scenes provoke in viewers is indicative of the skill with which Cronenberg upsets convention and confounds expectation.

However, Dead Ringers is about more than clinical remove and genre alienation. It also draws on Cronenberg’s philosophical obsessions as well as details of the Marcus Brothers case. It fashions Beverly and Elliot as two halves of one whole who share everything in life, including a profession, a bed, and even the women they romance. In the early scenes set in 1954 Toronto, we watch the indistinguishable adolescents Beverly and Elliot (who share an uncanny and perhaps deliberate resemblance to Cronenberg himself) discuss the biological necessities of sex. In 1967 at Cambridge University, we watch as they develop and patent a gynecological retractor as medical students. Finally, in 1988 Toronto, we catch up to the twins in the present day as Beverly and Elliot share a gynecological practice, with Beverly doing the majority of the clinical work while Elliot attends award ceremonies and wooes wealthy donors at fundraisers.

It’s clear from the early moments of the 1988 section that Beverly and Elliot’s identification with each other goes further than mere brotherhood. They present themselves as entirely joined with each other, as if they’re conjoined twins instead of merely identical twins (a theme that is made explicit later in the film). After Elliot returns to the clinic from a gala event, he tells Beverly “You should’ve been there.” Beverly responds, “I was.”

Cronenberg also presents them as representing several philosophical dichotomies. In one respect, Beverly represents the mind while Elliot represents the body. It doesn’t take us long to learn that Elliot is more romantically skilled and sexually mature than Beverly. In one scene, he mentions that Beverly would still be a virgin if he hadn’t seduced a girl and had Beverly pretend to be him to have sex. When Beverly becomes involved with Claire Niveau, Elliot initiates the sexual dimension of the relationship while pretending to be Beverly, again demonstrating that his appetites are carnal, while Beverly’s are more intellectual and emotional. If we’re paying attention in the 1954 scenes, we’ll even notice that the childhood Elliot describes aquatic reproduction as “The kind [of sex] where you wouldn’t have to touch each other,” to which Beverly responds, “I like that idea.”

This philosophical divide between Beverly and Elliot also presents Elliot as male and Beverly as female. This is obvious from Beverly’s typically-female name, which Claire Niveau even points out in a later scene. But it’s also demonstrated in the body language and attitudes of the characters. Elliot is aggressive, sexually and professionally; he represents conventionally male traits. Beverly is passive, sensitive and emotional; he’s conventionally female. As the film progresses, the twins begin to swap their roles and their delicate balance is upset, causing them to spiral into chaos. (It’s worth considering that Cronenberg’s exploitation of conventional gender roles and the chaos of gender imbalance contributes to the film’s reputation as misogynistic.)

Once the mind-body, male-female balance between Elliot and Beverly is upset, it cannot be restored, which contributes to the characters’ downfall and the increasing derangement of their actions and attitudes. Beverly refuses to share experiences with Elliot, telling him “I want to keep it. For myself.” In the film’s most famous line, Elliot barks back at Beverly: “You haven’t had any experience until I’ve had it too...You haven’t fucked Claire Niveau until you’ve told me about it.” Of course, Beverly wants to be an individual for the first time in his life and it’s this hunger for experiences unique to himself that is his undoing; he’s not strong enough to withstand the world on his own because he is not a complete human being. Thus, Dead Ringers becomes about the tragic formation of an individual and the instability that comes with leaving the security of balance and dependency.

Elliot desperately tries to restore the balance. He experiments with playing both parts himself independent of Beverly’s contribution; in one scene, he orders twin escorts, telling one of the girls to call him Beverly while the other calls him Elliot. Later, he tries to seduce his brother into rejoining his symbiotic balance, almost incestuously coming on to him during a three-way dance between him, Beverly, and his casual girlfriend, Cary (Heidi von Palleske). As he places his hand on the small of Beverly’s back, he whispers, “Stay with us. Stay with me.” None of these efforts work and Elliot soon attempts to reconstitute balance by following Beverly into the depths of addiction. Neither brother recovers.

Beyond the clinical remove, the philosophical explorations of duality, and the fascinating ways that Cronenberg alienates the viewer, Dead Ringers is most effective as a human tragedy. Despite it being far more restrained in terms of blood and gore than The Fly, it shares with that film a profound sadness at the root of its story. In fact, Dead Ringers shares much with its more commercial predecessor. As in The Fly, Dead Ringers has Cronenberg making his mad scientist character the narrative protagonist. Thus, the tragic fallout of the scientist(s)’s actions are not easily viewed from a critical remove like in Cronenberg’s early work, but are instead central to the film’s emotional arc.

As well, like in The Fly, sexual awakening and appetite precipitates the tragedy. In The Fly, Seth Brundle is a virgin who discovers sexual gratification and professional success through romance, but who also allows those sexual feelings to fill him with jealousy, which fuels a fatal mistake in his research. In Dead Ringers, Beverly is also a sexually-inexperienced man who finds sexual and emotional satisfaction with a woman, but who lacks the maturity to handle the jealousy that comes along with that relationship. When he foolishly mistakes Claire’s gay assistant for her lover, he spirals out of control and begins abusing the pain medication that Claire introduced to him.

Unlike in The Fly, Beverly’s jealous breakdown also spells doom for Elliot, as Elliot cannot conceive of a life without Beverly as his complement. He starts to take the same pills that Beverly does, explaining that “Beverly and I just have to get synchronized.” However, the synchronization does not work to restore stability. It merely reduces Elliot to Beverly’s sorry state. In one respect Elliot is correct though, as it does restore his and Beverly’s unified nature. Cronenberg, who until this point has been so good at signalling the differences between Beverly and Elliot, differentiating them for the viewer, begins to drop the visual clues and shoot them as indistinguishable from each other. In one stunning take, Beverly and Elliot amble about their clinic in unison, popping pills and muttering the same words to each other, going over their plan to regain control. It’s impossible to tell them apart in this shot; in fact, you’d almost think Cronenberg merely duplicated the footage and had both versions play out with a few second delay for the second twin.

By the final moments of the film, the brothers have devolved into children, incapable of understanding their predicament or saving themselves from their impulses. Instead of transforming into a hideous monster like Seth Brundle in The Fly, Beverly and Elliot’s devolution is psychological and internal; aside from exhaustion, Beverly and Elliot look no physically different than they did early in the film. But their minds have broken down and they’re left mere husks of their former selves, experiencing only pain and carnal satisfaction. In the film’s most heartbreaking moment, Beverly and Elliot feast on cake and orange soda, returning to the tastes of their childhood, and as Elliot munches on the cake, he cries out, “I want some ice cream.” It’s a seeming non-sequitur but it shows the humanity at their core, through the fact that in this moment, Elliot is not a philosophical concept of masculinity nor an embodiment of physical appetites, but a child who is in pain and who has no idea how to make the pain stop aside from reaching for the simplest of his human comforts: ice cream. It’s a devastating moment in a film that is surprisingly emotional for something so clinical and detached.

It’s also necessary to briefly comment on the sheer technical achievement that is Dead Ringers. Not only is Cronenberg’s unpretentious camerawork perfect at communicating the reality of Jeremy Irons as two distinct individuals, using subtle camera movements and editing patterns to hide the seams of the duplicating effect and conjure a believable on-screen relationship between the brothers, but Jeremy Irons performances as Beverly and Elliot prove to be some of the greatest acting work ever put on the screen. Irons does little to physically differentiate Beverly and Elliot; he doesn’t hunch as one brother, for instance, or bother with costume differences aside from Beverly’s glasses. Instead, he manifests the differences in the brothers through their separate poise and voices. He makes Elliot confident through the clarity of his speech and the assured way he smiles and looks people in the eye, while he has Beverly internalize his feelings and struggle to connect with individuals in scenes. Elliot’s voice seems richer and deeper, while Beverly’s is more like a child. Although Elliot jokingly refers to Beverly as his “baby brother,” Beverly does in fact seem much younger than Elliot, despite no physical differences.

If Jeremy Irons’ performances were not absolutely credible, Dead Ringers would be an intellectually-stimulating, but emotionally-distant curiosity, no more. But the marriage of Irons’ emotional, absolutely authentic portrayal of two brothers and their psychological downfall with Cronenberg’s talent for realizing defamiliarization and thematic complexity makes Dead Ringers a beautiful contradiction: a clinical yet devastating tragedy. All of Cronenberg’s formal techniques and philosophical explorations work to distance the viewer from the tragedy at the film’s core, but Irons’ authentic depictions of pain and suffering break through the alienation and register far more acutely than would be possible through conventional melodrama. It establishes Dead Ringers as one of the most confounding films ever made, and one of the greatest.

10 out of 10

Dead Ringers (1988, Canada/USA)

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider, based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland; starring Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold, Heidi von Palleske, Barbara Gordon, Shirley Douglas, Stephen Lack.