Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the rote plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 97 (A)
Dead Ringers marks the point where critics normally averse to horror started paying attention to David Cronenberg. It’s a much more restrained work than the fleshy body horror he had made a name for himself with, with a stronger human element to it. But that’s not to say that Cronenberg buries his personality for the film. Quite the contrary: Dead Ringers stands up as one of Cronenberg’s most personal films, and as the director’s artistic peak to his most prolific and successful decade.
Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) are identical twin brothers and highly successful gynecologists in Toronto. Beverly is very shy and sensitive where Elliot is chilly, confident, and aggressive. The two have come into a habit of seducing women at their clinic, with Elliot picking women out before passing them on to Beverly, all while pretending to be the same person. When actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) comes to the clinic, Elliot seduces her, but problems start when Beverly falls head over heels for her. Soon, the pill-popping Claire’s habits spread to Beverly, and Elliot fears that his brother’s ruin will bring his own.
Dead Ringers can be divided into two distinct sections. The first details the psychological profiles of the three main characters- Beverly, Elliot, and Claire- while the second shows the struggle with identity and psychological ruin for the brothers. Cronenberg shows far more interest in creating unique and interesting characters here than he ever would in the rest of his career, but credit is also owed to the astonishing performances of the actors. Genevieve Bujold has sadly disappeared from the acting scene in the years since Dead Ringers’ release. It’s a damn shame, considering how fantastic she is here. Claire is an intelligent, talented woman whose desire for more in life will never be fulfilled. She has a “trifurcated cervix”, and so will likely never have children. She drowns her disappointment in pills she can get ahold of easily, given her fame. Even before she realizes that she’s sleeping with both of the brothers, she knows something is wrong. When she’s with Beverly, she’s attracted to his sensitivity. When she’s with Elliot (posing as Beverly), she notices a much snarkier, less likable edge. She feels betrayed before she ends up with Beverly again, but because Claire is a sympathetic character doesn’t make her a complete innocent. Her drug habit turns to a destructive force as it carries over to Beverly.
Jeremy Irons is a master of playing both nasty, chilly forces of malevolence (see: The Lion King, his Oscar-winning role in Reversal of Fortune) and haunted, wounded souls (Moonlighting, M. Butterfly). With Dead Ringers, he gets a chance to play both. What’s remarkable about Irons’ work here is that within a few seconds of seeing one of the brothers on screen, you instantly know which you’re looking at, and without a cheat like a slight difference in appearance. They’re both chilly individuals, but the two have different ways of carrying themselves and expressing themselves. Elliot is a cold, dispassionate vampire of a man who understands human behavior but holds himself above it; he’s a natural charmer with a sociopathic streak. Beverly, on the other hand, is outright uncomfortable making human connections. When he finally meets someone other than his brother who cares about him, then, he becomes psychologically dependent. It’s an astonishing dual-performance that’s easily the best work of Irons career, one that many believed would win him an Oscar. Inexplicably, he wasn’t even nominated. Chalk up another reason as to why the Oscars don’t matter worth a damn.
Cronenberg, for his part, still maintains that chilly distance that marks most of his films. The opening credits give an idea of what’s to come: pictures of conjoined twins and people slit open at the stomach, as if the director took a warped, almost anthropologically removed look at humanity. But Cronenberg sympathizes with these characters nonetheless- as much as they remove themselves from the rest of humanity, they’re still very much a part of it- fatally flawed human beings who don’t know how to act around others. It’s Cronenberg’s most effective film because he feels more attuned to how these people work than in any of his other films- after all, Cronenberg himself has seemed uncomfortable with humanity throughout his career. Cronenberg uses very effective close-ups on the two to show their frames of mind- Beverly is removed from people until he grows close to them, at which point he is completely dependent on them and tied to them. Ellliot, meanwhile, is possessive of his brother, as if he won’t allow him to be a separate entity. There’s only one all-out new-flesh body horror sequence in the film, and it’s a dream- Beverly wakes up in bed with Claire, but he and Elliot are conjoined by a horrifying fleshy outgrowth, and Claire separates them by chomping down on it. Bev is horrified. As he says later in the film, “separation can be a terrifying thing”, something Cronenberg understands perfectly.
Howard Shore has been one of the most important collaborators in Cronenberg’s career, and Dead Ringers ranks alongside The Fly in the pantheon of Shore’s work. The score starts out as warmer and more understanding than most Cronenberg films, only to segue into darker, more haunted themes that hint at tragedy around the corner as soon as Beverly becomes dependent on pills. The score goes into all-out horror during an operation scene gone wrong, where Bev’s so strung out on drugs that he nearly kills a patient. By the time the film reaches its tragic, horrifying conclusion, Shore’s final piece builds from moody rumbling tones that hint at horror into the tragic theme hinted at earlier in the film. The world has come crashing down.
But as important as Shore’s collaboration is, it doesn’t contribute to the most memorable bit with music. Dead Ringers’ best scene (and, quite frankly, the best scene of Cronenberg’s career) comes from what is, as far as I can tell, Cronenberg’s only use of popular music throughout his career with the Five Satins classic doo wop song “In the Still of the Night”. Bev is convinced that Claire is cheating on him, and he’s taken to popping pills all through the day. He’s distraught, but Elly doesn’t take Bev’s heartbreak into consideration. Elly dances with his girlfriend Cary in the background of a shot, practically celebrating Claire’s exit, while Bev lies emotionally wounded on the couch. Cary, who has previously expressed an attraction to the sensitive Bev (her relationship with Elly is purely sexual) asks him to dance, to which he reluctantly accepts. When they dance, Bev holds on to her for dear life, as if he’s retreating into her embrace. Elly joins in, takes control, and the three become one as he joins Cary in caressing Bev. It’s a scene that best highlights the difference between the two- submissive vs. dominant, weak vs. predatory- while also showing a powerful mix of emotion and disturbing psychological abuse.
For these are two people who cannot, for whatever reason, relate to humanity. A few scenes early in the film exist to establish their coldness from youth- a childhood contemplating sex as an anthropological means to an end, a college career working on a gynecological instrument that’s painful to whoever it’s used on. The early going of the film is often quite funny, given Bev’s discomfort with people (asked by Claire if he will spank her: “It hadn’t occurred to me”) and Elly’s disastrous handling of one of the patients (“I’m just no good with the serious ones”). But as Bev starts to branch out with Claire, Elly becomes more possessive. “You haven’t fucked Claire Niveau until you’ve told me about it”.
It’s an issue of identity, at the bottom of it all. Where previous transformations in Cronenberg films were often psychological manifested physically, here it is almost entirely psychological (it’s a horror film of the mind). Beverly and Elliot share an identity and frequently impersonate one another, and share the same women. As Bev gains independence (or rather, grows dependent on Claire rather than Elliot), Elliot begins to lose his identity. To him, they are one being. It’s very telling that when he orders a pair of call girls at one point in the film, he specifically requests twins, and asks for one to call him “Bev” and the other “Elly”. When asked by Bev why he gives a damn about his weaker twin, Elly gives the adage of the Siamese twins Chang and Eng- when one died of illness, the other died of fright. Elly is so convinced that they share an identity that he believes they practically share the same nervous system- “we just need to synchronize”, he argues, as he begins popping pills himself. Bev, meanwhile, grows to fear his own twin, and takes radical action.
This psychological change between the two begins to take a toll on them. Bev’s mind grows warped. His disconnect with humanity becomes more pronounced as he imagines women with mutated reproductive systems and makes a handful of terrifying-looking gynecological instruments “for mutant women”. The film becomes a horror movie about loss of control (an underrated Cronenberg theme) as the two become completely dependent on drugs and lose touch of reality. And yet that loss of control is ultimately what makes them more human. These are two people who, when they become more human and more emotional, they don’t know how to handle it without falling apart. The two finally do become something resembling human as the film reaches a murder-suicide conclusion that’s as tragic and moving as The Fly and as mind-boggling as Videodrome. As grand as many of Cronenberg’s later films were, none of them ever matched Dead Ringers for sheer emotional power.
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