Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Film #143: Dead Ringers

There was a time, in the 70s and very early 80s, in which David Cronenberg was (at least to me) one of cinema's crassest filmmakers. It wasn't that his films were bad; they were often elegant to look at and were always memorable. But the images I took from them left me with a sour taste: Marilyn Chambers frothing at the mouth in Rabid, the slimy slugs from They Came From Within; the famed exploding heads in Scanners; the guts-packed TVs in Videodrome, and, most horribly, Samantha Eggar biting into her external birth sac and licking her embryo of rage clean in The Brood.

But, starting with 1983's The Dead Zone, Cronenberg decided to go a little lighter on us. This didn't diminish his films' power one bit; they just made it easier to eat our dinner after the movie. Yes, he still gave us The Fly in 1986, which had more than its share of gross-outs, and the buggy assholed typewriter in 1991's Naked Lunch. But movies like M. Butterfly, Crash, Spider, eXistenZ, Eastern Promises, and A History of Violence belong to a section of Cronenberg ouvre that's still interested in the biopsy of body and mind, but which is less (but not un-) interested in seeing how queasy it can make its audience feel. His 1988 film Dead Ringers is perhaps my favorite of this bunch.

The film was based on the sad exploits of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, twin brothers who ran a gynecology clinic in 60s/70s New York City. I first read about the Marcus twins in Linda Wolfe's excellent 1986 true crime anthology The Professor and the Prostitute. In the Marcus-oriented chapter of her book, she detailed the standoffish, snooty twins' rise through the ranks of the gynecological field after the publishing of their landmark textbook on the subject. However, their shared belief that they held some sort of supernatural twin powers resulted in an inability to connect to a world of singletons, and it led them down a dark path that ended in disaster. Having developed a strong addiction to uppers and downers, the twins began to abuse their colleagues and, most shockingly, their female patients, for whom they could not hide their sexual contempt (they often demeaned their pregnant patients for getting themselves "in trouble", and even damaged one woman physically in an examination). This led to their resolute dismissal from their hospital residency and directly into an extended period of isolation and intense drug use. When they were both found dead in their Upper East side apartment in 1975, the place was littered with trash, rotted food, feces, and empty prescription bottles. Theirs was a sobering, mysterious fall from the heights of industry acclaim to the depths of deformity.

So when Dead Ringers came out two years after I read Wolfe's book, I was pumped up for it. The story of the Marcus twins was perhaps the most notable yarn in a book filled with bat-shit shocking tales of madness. And, even though the film diverted crazily from their story, the basics were certainly there. In Dead Ringers, Jeremy Irons played both Mantle twins, introverted Beverly and man-of-the-world Elliott. The two share everything: their education, achievements, medical discoveries, bylines, medical practice, meals, fancy apartment, and even their women (often synonymous with "their patients").

As attached as the two are ("Whatever goes through my bloodstream," the domineering Elliott says, "goes through his, too"), there's dissention afoot when famed actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) intervenes. Visiting the twins' OB/GYN practice while on a movie location, Claire falls in love with the aggressive Elliott without ever realizing that he's routinely switching himself off with the shaky, nervous Beverly, whom Elliott prods into participating in the deadly pranks which he thinks will HELP his brother connect more with the outside world. Claire continues on with the affair, thinking she's in love with a he. But really she's in love with a them. She begins to suspect that her new lover is a schizophrenic, and when she decides to terminate the relationship, the first great schism between the Mantle twins manifests itself in terrible ways. A devastated Beverly (with his obviously more feminine name) decides he's in love for the first time in his life, and decides on a trial separation from his brother. But neither can function well without their second half. What happens should not be repeated, but rest assured, it ain't the picture postcard of the month.

Dead Ringers is the medically-minded Cronenberg's only film with actual doctors as lead characters (that is, until his newest movie, A Dangerous Method, arrives later this year, with Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as his professional and romantic rival, Carl Jung). As such, the 1988 movie finally took the director's fascination with body horror--infection, disease, surgery, parasites and genetic mutation--and reconciled it with a peculiar type of mainstream cinema (there IS a dream sequence in Dead Ringers that revisits vividly Cronenberg's more dismally visceral concerns). With Dead Ringers and its core subject matter regarding the womb and what happens in it, and what it can produce, Cronenberg gets deeper into his obsession with mapping the inside of the human body. He has his Mantle twins exploring it, poking at it (sexually and surgically) and, ultimately, desiring to once again seek a long-abandoned refuge in it once again. There's a superb prologue in the film, where we see the twins as kids. It contains this marvelous, chilling bit of dialogue, which I've never forgotten for its logic and creepiness; it's written by Cronenberg and his co-scripter Norman Snider:

Elliot, Age 9: You've heard about sex...

Beverly, Age 9:
Sure I have.

Elliot, Age 9:
Well I've discovered why sex is.

Beverly, Age 9:
You have? Fantastic!

Elliott, Age 9:
It's because humans don't live under water.

Beverly, Age 9:
I don't get it.

Elliot, Age 9: Well, fish don't need sex because they just lay the eggs and fertilize them in the water. Humans can't do that because they don't live in the water. They have to...
internalize the water. Therefore we have sex.

Beverly, Age 9: So you mean humans wouldn't have sex if they lived in the water?

Elliot, Age 9:
Well, they'd have a kind of sex. The kind where you wouldn't have to touch each other.

Beverly, Age 9: I
like that idea. Have you heard of scuba diving? It's just new.

Elliot, Age 9:
Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

Beverly, Age 9:

Elliot, Age 9 [noticing a girl on a porch, Raffaella]: Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Beverly, Age 9:
Yeah. You ask her. [they approach Raffaella]

Elliot, Age 9: Raffaella, will you have sex with us in our bathtub? It's an experiment.

Are you kidding? Fuck off, you freaks. I'm telling my father you talk dirty. Besides, I know for a fact you don't even know what fuck is. [she retreats into her house]

Elliot, Age 9 [to Beverly, walking away]: They're so different from us. And all because we don't live under water.

Of course, in the previous scene, the more shy Beverly has his more forward brother ask the girl for sex; in a world where we only needed water to procrate, the game and dance wouldn't be necessary, and thus the risk would be minimal--unless EMOTIONS came into play. This lesson is one of the things I truly adore about Dead Ringers; the film can often seem like a class on sociobiology. Adorned with Carol Spier's cold production design--with lots of glass, halogen light, and steely blue surfaces (which are perfect to illustrate underwater doings)--the Canadian Cronenberg absolutely reveals his DNA. Dead Ringers is clearly a Canadian production; it screams "Toronto!" In that way, it diverges from the story of New York City's Marcus twins considerably (and suitably; Toronto seems to me to be a much haughtier town). And the melodrama with Bujold, who's extraordinary here in one of her best roles, is really only a way to illustrate how these two boys, fearful of where they came from, ultimately find women to be inscrutable, over-emotional mutants. Given this, I wonder if telling the real story of the Marcus twins was something Cronenberg thought he couldn't slave his audience to; even HE had his limits, and the studio execs wouldn't brook that kind of story. It just wouldn't make money.

With all the chilly blues in Dead Ringers, one sequence is really supposed to stand out: the surgery scene, with doctors donned in blood red robes, trying out the twin's newest inventions: a terrifying array of Cronenbergian appliances (the director makes a masked cameo in the scene). The appliances are designed for the application against "female mutants" (crafted after the twins discover that Bujold's character, ironically, sports twin vaginas). This sequence stands as the film's centerpiece, in horror and in color. Its tension is amped up further by Peter Suschitsky's extra-sharp cinematography and Howard Shore's ominous score--one of many that he's composed for Cronenberg, and also for the likes of David Fincher's Se7en and Tarsem Singh's The Cell. Lastly, the instruments themselves are pure Cronenberg, through and through.

But, finally, it is Jeremy Irons who is the film's MVP. Often times in this movie, it's more difficult to tell Irons apart from the Mantle twins than it is the tell the Mantle twins apart from each other. He handles what could have been a tired and cliched pair of roles with breathtaking aplomb. Though the makeup, costuming, hairstyling, subtle special
effects (seemless and groundbreaking for their time), and cinematography help his characterizations to the tee, it's Irons' grappling with the marrows of each brother that makes the film succeed. Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie has the sickened Beverly being administered to by the still vital Elliott, who's still not willing to let his brother go his own way. Notice how Irons has Beverly deliver his lines here in a loopy, singsong voice that underlines both his greater humanity and his utter disconnect from reality. I also love, in this scene, how Cronenberg has his characters fittingly struggle over the separation of the famed "Siamese" twins Chang and Eng Bunker; it perfectly illustrates the illusion that the Marcus twins had with their perceived superiority over the great majority of us who are not "connected," and how they couldn't imagine living apart from one another:

Irons won the Academy Award for Best Actor--but not in 1988. He had to wait one year later to win for his portrayal of another insane doctor, Claus Von Bulow, in Barbet Schroeder's respectable but much-less-compelling 1989 film Reversal of Fortune. When he was up on the stage receiving his Oscar, Irons rightfully gave a shout-out to David Cronenberg, whom he probably believed was the REAL reason he'd won (he was probably right; the Academy didn't even nominate Irons in 1988, even though his lead performance was surely the top among the five best of that year). Often, Cronenberg's strongest films seem to be acute collaborations with his lead actors: Eggar in The Brood, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, Peter Weller in Naked Lunch, Ralph Fiennes in Spider, and most especially Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone. I still think his work with Irons plays as the collaboration that is closest to each other artist's hearts. Without either the writer/director's acute, exacting words and visuals, or Irons' hearty twin performances, Dead Ringers might have had all the effectiveness of the average episode of The Patty Duke Show. Instead, it still remains an gripping grimace of a thriller, laced with downbeat biopic undertones.


Shubhajit said...

Great deconstruction of a fine film! Dead Ringers would certainly rank among Cronenberg's best films. The psychological horror was given an eerie dimension thanks to the terrific moodiness and atmosphere that the film had, and Jeremy Irons brilliant turn as the twins.

By the way, I hadn't known about the book that this film was based on. It was really interesting and disturbing to read about the real life twins. The fact that the characters weren't entirely fictional but based on real people does give a far more distressing quality to this excellent film.

Dean Treadway said...

Thank you so much for reading, and for learning, too!

Icaro said...

I think Irons made the most impressive act of ...milimetric acting.