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DEAD RINGERS (review)

dead_ringersDEAD RINGERS
Written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Jeremy Irons and Geneviève Bujold
 

Beverly Mantle: I’ve often thought there should be beauty contests for the insides of people.

This autumn, Canadian auteur director David Cronenberg comes to the TIFF Bell Lightbox for a celebration of all things body horror. In this series, fans of the director will be able to see Cronenberg’s work on the big screen like never before, and it’s opening night, October 31st, couldn’t be more appropriate. At 6:30pm, Cronenberg and actor Jeremy Irons will be in attendance to introduce the disturbing psycho-sexual vision that is DEAD RINGERS.

Cronenberg has long been viewed as the leading pioneer of Canadian body horror, often pairing themes with medical backdrops like in THE BROOD or RABID. There is also often the presence of visceral special effects, as seen in VIDEODROME, THE FLY and SCANNERS, but none of his films presents such an unnerving tale as DEAD RINGERS. The story relies on technical elements more than special effects to create a sense of unease and claustrophobia.

In the duel role of twin gynecologists, Jeremy Irons portrays both Beverly and Elliot Mantle, medical geniuses in their field. Despite their identical appearance, which is used deceivingly during their private practice appointments and with women for sexual exploits, they have distinct personalities. Elliot is the “face” of the operation, the doctor who performs examinations, seduces women and then trades them off to Beverly, the reserved brother who is more inclined to research. Without any regard to their ethical behavior, this is the way they have been operating since their youth.

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Then they meet actress, Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold), whose body is somewhat of a medical mutation with its three cervixes. She believe she is having a relationship with one of the brothers but she soon discovers the truth behind the Mantle twins; she is in fact seeing both of them, both in the bedroom and on the examination table. Claire and Beverly attempt to make the relationship work after the discovery, but Claire’s addiction to pharmaceuticals soon begins to rub off on Beverly, affecting his work. Elliot, ever devoted to their research takes on a teaching position out of town at the same time that Clair has taken a new job that requires her to be away for 10 weeks. This is where the effects of addiction and the anxiety over separation really begin to stir up deep emotions within Beverly. Before long Beverly starts on a downward spiral of self-destruction and despair, swallowing back pills to cope with his perceived loss of part of himself, his identical twin brother. As a method of rehabilitating his brother, Elliot believes that he must come to Beverly’s level and attempts to restore the balance between them, one heavily addicted to drugs and on a psychological breakdown, the other revelling in his work and teaching.

Cronenberg’s work here is complex; not only is he creating a world of self abandonment and mental breakdown, but he is slyly playing around with gender roles and interjecting beautiful scenes of religious imagery. The world of the Mantle brothers revolves around their practice, their work is their life. We as the audience are only given a small speck of the outside world; most of the shots are of the clinic interior, the twins’ or Claire’s apartment. There is very little that we see outside of this, and the spaces get smaller and smaller the more the two of them disintegrate. Beverly moves from Claire’s apartment to the office when Elliot comes home and the two begin to live in that cramped space. With few exterior shots, the audience’s view of DEAD RINGERS is full of walls, ceilings and cold lighting. While this story is in fact very human, it is extremely consistent with Cronenberg’s narrative style that detaches itself from the personal and focuses on the pathological. This feeling of detachment works incredibly well in all of Cronenberg’s films, and especially here. It forces us to wonder and question just what message he is trying to give his audience about medical practice.

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The cold look of the film is broken at several points when medical procedures are shown, and the blood-red, doctor scrubs seem to almost leap off the screen. Elliot stands, arms outstretched while the assisting nurses clothe him in a style that reminds the viewer of a priest, almost hooded, cloaked in fabric and we half expect a sermon to begin. But to Elliot Mantle, the operating room can be viewed as his church, the place where his beliefs, experimentation and revelations come to life.

At a point in the first part of the film, Claire is questioning Beverly about his name, asking if his brother also has a girls name, which causes him to react rather irrationally, accusing Claire of asking if he is gay, or if his mother actually wanted little girls. While the name may be suitable for both genders, this scene is actually quite telling for a few scenes later in the film. While Claire is leaving to go on her 10-week shoot, Beverly is standing outside the apartment door, wearing a small housecoat and acting in a manner that is typically seen by females on screen. His foray into pill-popping resembles the lonely housewife of the 1950’s and he is seen by Claire as the more sensitive of the two brothers. While it is never made explicit during the film, it almost does feel that Beverly is the more feminine of the pair, Elliot being the masculine older brother.

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While the psychological breakdown of one brother eventually leads to the other brother’s spiral into despair and destruction as well, Cronenberg implies that their relationship is far more complex than we actually see. They claim that one cannot have an experience until it is shared with the other brother; they have a bond that is unfamiliar to us, perhaps only understood by those with a twin. The two discuss the first Siamese twins, who died in their bed after one had a stoke and supposedly the other died of shock: one simply could not live without the other. And this is how DEAD RINGERS ends, they both must live or not at all. It is a poetic ending to one of Cronenberg’s most perverse pieces of work.

5

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