Canada | 1988 | Directed by David Cronenberg
Logline: Twin doctors who share everything find themselves falling apart after a complicated woman comes between them.
The story follows the dual career of twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both played with astonishing skill by Jeremy Irons) They are pioneering gynaecologists, and female fertility is their field. Having excelled at a young age, they are now forty and at the top of their game, with their own private clinic, specialists to the wealthy and elite.
The clinic’s latest patient is Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold, also superb), a movie star. Elliot, the cynical ladies man, seduces her, then has Beverly impersonate him, so, as usual, his shy introverted brother can get laid. But this time Beverly falls heavily, and for awhile Claire is none the wiser. As Claire is taking a cocktail of drugs for her infertility and high profile equilibrium, Beverly soon begins his own dependence on prescription pills. The Mantle twins have a dark side, and this shadow soon eclipses everything.
Cronenberg based his screenplay (co-written with Norman Snider) on a 1977 novel, which in turn was inspired by an newspaper article about successful doctors, the Marcus twins, who were discovered dead in their Upper East Side Manhattan apartment which had become a scene of utter degradation. They had died due to withdrawal from barbiturate abuse.
Originally the movie was titled Gemini, which the studio didn’t like, so it was changed to Twins (terrible alternative, but then I’ve never been a fan of Dead Ringers as the substitute either). Cronenberg’s former producer Ivan Reitman then wrangled the title rights for his upcoming Danny DeVito/Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy, so Cronenberg went with the trashy-sounding Dead Ringers. Oh well.
The King of Venereal Horror has always been fascinated by the body and its various states of physical strength and mortal decay. He has also been intrigued by the psychological states of mind that influence the body, both metaphysically and biologically. Dead Ringers is more subtle in his exploration of body horror, but no less powerful. More concerned with the abuse of power and the disintegration of control. It is the subtleties within Dead Ringers that make it so resonant, disturbing, yet quietly, strangely exhilarating. Balancing sensuality with grotesquerie, nightmarish horror with sly eroticism.
It’s a stunning looking film. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s hot/cold palate of lush reds and metallic blues juxtaposed amidst the straight formal lines courtesy of Cronenberg’s regular production designer Carol Spier. It’s the director’s most stylised film. Of particular note is the computer-controlled moving-matte photography used to enable Jeremy Irons to seemingly interact with himself on screen. This pre-CGI special effect was the first of its kind. It’s a double whammy performance that should’ve netted Irons a double Oscar nomination!
Howard Shore’s score is a highlight, the brooding strings beautifully capture the inherent sadness and despair. Though the cloud is long and dark, there are some genuinely funny moments; sharp, scabrous dialogue and some unsettling visual gags too. The one weak link is Heidi von Palleske as Elliot’s lover Cary, whose acting is mediocre at best, but it’s a small quibble, as she doesn’t have a lot of screen time.
This is Cronenberg’s masterpiece, a ferociously intelligent study of ambition, addiction, corruption, loneliness, and despair. Almost Shakespearean in its tragedy, the tale of once clever, successful and sensitive men reduced to insufferable, disturbed children, trying to mend the broken pieces of their careers and lives, but their self-inflicted wounds keep rupturing, and it is their inexorable undoing. Poor Elly, poor Bev.