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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Dead Ringers (1988)

* * *

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jeremy Irons

To put it bluntly, Dead Ringers is a creepy movie. It's really creepy if you're a woman and I would imagine that it's pretty creepy if you're a twin. It's a film about twins who have a parasitic relationship, sharing everything and becoming unable to be fully functional human beings on their own. Jeremy Irons plays the twins and in doing so creates one of his most memorable performances (well, two, I suppose).

Dead Ringers centres on twin brothers, Elliot and Beverly Mantle. Both are celebrated gynaecologists and they share the same medical practice, the same apartment and, often, the same women. They are two separate people with two separate personalities – Beverly is the sensitive one who toils in the background while Elliot is the dominant one described at one point as “Dracula” – but they live as if they are one entity, two halves of a whole person. Their already complicated relationship is thrown into chaos when they get involved with Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), an actress with whom Bev falls in love, or at least into deep dependence.

The twins’ relationship becomes strained as Claire usurps Elliot’s place as the most important person in Bev’s life and also shares her drug addiction with him. Soon Bev’s addiction has taken over his life, completely hindering his ability to work and function. At first Elliot tries to wean him off the drugs but, given how psychically entwined they are, it’s only a matter of time before Elliot has picked up the habit as well. The two spiral out of control together and in a drug fuelled haze take action to separate themselves from each other once and for all.

The film is, obviously, deeply psychological, particularly where the character of Beverly is concerned. He is obsessed with women, with the interior makeup of women, and with female gender roles. At one point Claire innocently remarks that Beverly is an unusual name for a man and he freaks out, asking her if she thinks he’s gay or that his mother wanted girls. His use of plural “girls” is interesting because there’s no indication that Elliot shares the same anxieties with him. The way that Elliot relates to women is messed up, certainly, but he doesn’t seem to suffer from feelings of emasculation the way that Bev does. His attraction to Claire stems, at least in part, from his fascination with the anomalies he discovers while examining her. She has a trifurcate cervix, making her a “mutant” – a woman unlike other women, just as he’s a man unlike other men.

In its exploration of the twins’ profession, the film gets surprisingly clinical, although as it nears the end it becomes increasingly fantastical. Aside from being respected practitioners, the twins are also renowned researchers who have developed a number of medical tools. Some of Bev’s latest inventions, however, leave other doctors and nurses bewildered and, indeed, they look more like fetishistic torture devices than professional instruments. These tools are made specifically for “mutants” and one will later be employed on Eliot. Director David Cronenberg, who is also credited as one of the film's writers, allows a lot of room to explore the psychosexual aspects of the story without ever allowing the film to become overwhelmed with theory. The psychology of the story seems to fit in naturally with everything else, making for a film that doesn’t seem overly self-conscious in its subtext. It’s definitely a very interesting film and the dual performances by Irons are masterful, as he creates very distinct characters out of these two men who are superficially indistinguishable. It’s a great set of performances that would be more than enough to recommend the film even without the technical skill displayed by Cronenberg.

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