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Dead Ringers (1988)
Dead Ringers is a 1988 psychological drama film starring Jeremy Irons in a dual role as identical twin gynecologists. Director David Cronenberg co-wrote the screenplay with Norman Snider; their script was based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. The film is very loosely based on the lives of Stewart and Cyril Marcus. Elliot and Beverly Mantle are identical twins and highly successful gynecologists. Elliot, the more aggressive and confident of the two, seduces women who come to the Mantle Clinic. When he tires of them, the women are passed on to the shy and passive Beverly, while the women remain unaware of the substitution. A troubled actress, Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold), comes to the clinic for her infertility. It turns out that Claire has a "trifurcated cervix", which means she probably will not be able to have children. Elliot seduces Claire and then urges Beverly to sleep with her. When Beverly becomes attached to Claire, it upsets the equilibrium between the twins. When Claire learns of the twins' deception, she is angry but later decides to continue a relationship with Beverly exclusively. Claire leaves to work on another film.
Dead Ringers is based on the true story of two twin gynecologists, Steven and Cyril Marcus, who frequently switched places with each other, both at work and in their private lives. With their lives spiraling out of control, the brothers committed suicide together in their Manhattan apartment. The 1977 novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, dramatized the case, and Cronenberg's film follows suit. Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons) are twin brothers, both are emotionally detached and both grow up to become gynecologists. When Elliot, the more sophisticated of the two, beds movie star Clair (Genevieve Bujold), he invites Beverly to share her with him. As Elliot explains, the experience of one brother has no meaning unless it's shared with the other. Things turn ugly when Bev falls for the actress.
Cronenberg paints a haunting picture with Dead Ringers. It is not a warm film, the characters feel cold and mechanical, even the colors seem bleached out. While Dead Ringers is not a 'body horror' film, as Cronenberg's earlier pictures (Shivers, The Brood, The Fly) were, there is still a hint here of body revulsion. Scenes of surgery, in which the brother's drape themselves in blood red surgical gowns and use bizarre instruments that they've manufactured themselves hint at the horrors of Cronenberg's earlier works. (The new Criterion Collection DVD has a special documentary devoted to the design of these very memorable, organic instruments. A more streamlined disc from Warner Bros. is out now.) Irons is startlingly off-kilter, his performance a veritable textbook example of deranged if icy brilliance. The split screen effect by which the brothers were shown together was at the time daring and is expertly carried off. Today such special effects could easily be achieved using CGI or even on a home PC.
Dead Ringers -- the title was originally Gemini -- is really a film about one person, not two. Cronenberg packs the films with doubles, but they are almost always mirror images, or at least that's what they boil down to. Cronenberg doesn't go into details, psychological or otherwise, and it's up to the performers, the camera, and the audience to comprehend exactly what is happening. And Dead Ringers works because of this aloofness. What is most clear is that the Mantle brothers are slowly filtering down to become one person. Had Roger Corman made Dead Ringers, one might expect an effects-laden twist ending in which the two brothers actually combine, flesh to flesh, to become one being. Where this was realized physically in schlock horrors like The Manster and The Thing with Two Heads, Cronenberg only teases at such absurdities. The horror here is not of the loss of the body, or even the horror of the science of the body, it is the horror of the mind, of individual perception. Cronenberg paints in moral grays. His characters exist in a scientific blank wave arcade (had to throw a Faint reference in somewhere) where humanity is mere flesh and confusion. The gradual assimilation of their already limited personalities is more like a symptom of a congenital disease than a statement about existential malaise. The Mantle brothers -- the sir name chosen for various connotations, no doubt -- are ciphers for the monstrous nothingness that exists in a life lived with no individuality. They are monsters of the id. And monsters of the id thrive in the cold, sterile world of science without humanity (or humility).
Needless to say, you don't come away from Dead Ringers with a happy-go-lucky feeling, nor do you come away entirely sure of what you've seen. Reality, like the warped minds of the Mantle brothers, is wholly subjective, and the only thing that is clear, crystal clear, is that, in the words of the seminal post-punk band Shriekback, 'evil is an exact science.'