Dead Ringers (Cronenberg, 1988)

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Though I’ve always enjoyed the Cronenberg films I’ve seen (a grand total of six now), Dead Ringers strikes me as the greatest realization of a premise. Not only in that it lives up to, and manages to ground a rather strange and unbelievable story, but also in bringing  complex identities about sex, identity and machines to their utmost potential. It’s both a daring, and yet, remarkably reserved film about two gynaecologist twins who teeter off the edge of sanity with the introduction of Claire, an actress, who disrupts the chemistry and understanding of their relationship drastically.

I had a teacher in college, who once called Cronenberg amateurish, and little more than a poor-man’s David Lynch. I was too uninformed at the time to make an effective counter-argument, but right now, even the comparison seems weak. For one thing, Cronenberg while concerned about the psychological and mind, is first and foremost fascinated with the body. Though somewhat similar in storyline, at least in a divided mind, to Mulholland Dr. this film (as is most of Cronenberg’s films) are less concerned with the internalization of these effects but rather how the body reflects the inside. It’s almost deceptively simple or literal. Yet, we forget how complex and perfectly orchestrated the human body is. How much it defines us, how our anatomy, man or woman, or in  some cases somewhere in between shapes and moulds not only our movements and physical world, but the very understanding of the self. Though not as evident in this case, there is also the idea of how far we can push the human body so that it is no longer “human”. Cronenberg often fuses this with science fiction, machinery, or animal. Pushing the  very boundaries of how we perceive our own bodies, and in turn, our very identities.

Dead Ringers begins with an unusual situation in itself, the genesis of identical twins. It happens, these people exist, and are accepted readily by society, though often as an amusing kind of entity separate from ourselves. It’s no surprise studies show that identical twins have often created individual languages known only to each other, and feel and understand each other better than even the closest siblings could ever hope to. There is a strange bond between them, linked as much in the physical condition as it is in the psychological. Beverly and Elliot may be very different on the inside, but the similar nature of their appearance is enough to link their souls.

As Bev spirals out of control, rapidly due to a misunderstanding with Claire, he comes to be disturbed by the nature of his patients. He begins to notice “abnormalities” and “mutants” everywhere. People who look fine on the outside, but are all wrong on the inside. It reflects on his decline in sanity and well-being, but is an important talking point in the film’s themes and ideas. The nature of our psychological as defined by our physical state. Why gynaecologists? It’s women who are the mystery, so different, so frightening. Elliot can circumvent and woo them with ease, but they are still very much an other, while for Bev, they are quite frightening, and the “realization” that Claire is “mutant”, skews his understanding  of all women and sex. It becomes something unreal, something without feeling, physical or emotional. He has been freed from his inhibitions, but at the price of his understanding of them as being human. The scene at the operating table with his new “tools”, is most evident of this. The look on the female doctor’s face, her wide eyes, and confusion. His dismissal earlier of the other women’s pain as he examined her. The instruments were right, they were perfect, it was the body that was wrong. Humanity is imperfect, we cannot live up to our own creations, our own ideals. At one point in the film, there is a discussion on beauty, and one of the twin ponders why we can’t judge kidneys or spleens as we do faces or bodies hold them to similar standards of beauty. In the end, he comes to the conclusion that we are the freaks, only his strange, lifeless and cold instruments are perfect and beautiful.

The necessary severing of souls is frightening, as Bev takes ultimate control and destroys what has been holding him back this entire time. It’s painful, it’s organic, but it’s also so cold. The only life and humanity they understand is themselves, and even that is brief and cursory. They can look into each other and see and feel their own bodies at work, but they never bothered to understand why or how. The intervention of a woman, a woman Bev came to love, ruined a very careful harmony of ideas and relationship. The film’s true horror is in the illogical nature of perception. In how we perceive ourselves and those around us, and how quickly and easily it can be disruptive, only to have to watch everything we know crumble away until we are left with shells, “simple” bodies without any meaning.

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2 responses to “Dead Ringers (Cronenberg, 1988)

  1. Ha, those are the twin hookers aren’t they? I’d totally forgotten that little scene. . . .

    Well, since a lot of people make this Lynch-Cronenberg comparison, I’ll weight in and admit that, in some sense, I agree with your professor. Not that Cronenberg hasn’t make impressive works (and Dead Ringers is one) but I don’t think the level of achievement is nearly comparable. Even as a craftsman, though proficient, I think Cronenberg is getting rather overrated: that cold bleak minimalist look of his films, both in mise en scene and in the texture/lighting of the photography, seems a bit glib and not really unique. Plus, as I’ve probably said somewhere here by now, he really comes off as rather full of himself!

    Dead Ringers is fascinating, but not likeable and, to me now, it doesn’t really even seem so interesting. I had a very amusing story in getting to first see it though! –there was some familial censorship going on, about which my mom finally relented but by then it was very hard to dig out the copy, which I watched both eagerly and with my finger on the “stop” button (which I actually hit during that surgical scene!). In retrospect the film seems kinda Neil LaBute-ish. The ending is perplexing and grotesque, but the whole sudden dominance of Beverly doesn’t feel quite motivated. And Claire (?-the Bujold character) really was rather unpleasant, cajoling Bev into doing drugs so as to satisfy her libido and so-on. I really like her as an actress but the film doesn’t flatter her. Irons of course is awesome, but thank god they saved his oscar for Claus von Bulow!

  2. I love Dead Ringers and therefore do not have much to add to your assessment. I think it’s Cronenberg’s best film and likely something he’s never going to top.

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