Dead Ringers (1988)

David Cronenberg | 1hr 55min

It isn’t always easy to commiserate with this tragically co-dependent pair of twin gynaecologists, Elliot and Beverly Mantle, whose inhuman eccentricities prove to be far more than simply character quirks. The steely greys and blues that make up their ice box of an apartment in Dead Ringers effectively ward off such open displays of sensitivity, and if that wasn’t enough, the shockingly aggressive punctuations of red in the mise-en-scène finish the job, creating some truly jarring visual compositions. Given the relative scarcity of Cronenbergian body horror to be found here, it is often these extreme hot and cold colours which end up serving the same purpose that the director’s famously grotesque imagery might usually stand in for, mirroring the twins’ own psychological duality in a striking visual dissonance.

Angry reds puncturing Cronenberg’s chilly mise-en-scène.

Right from the start of the film, there is an acute discomfort expressed by both Elliot and Beverly towards the human anatomy. Perhaps it comes down to the personal uneasiness they feel with their own bodies, which do not reflect the unity of their souls and psyches. In their minds, the splitting of the zygote in their mother’s womb should have never happened, as the result has created an imbalance in their individual identities – the smooth but cynical Elliot, and the shy, sensitive Beverly. The point and counterpoint in David Cronenberg’s characterisation of these twins makes for a stunning formal achievement, right down to the feminine naming of Beverly reflecting his softer traits in opposition to the callousness of the more masculine Elliot.

Magnificently austere mise-en-scène creating these clinical environments that close around Beverly and Elliot, and a notable use of canted angles tilting their worlds just slightly off centre.

In the physical world the twins share virtually everything, from sexual partners to living spaces, and in public they fluidly swap identities like two parts of one man. Visually, it is difficult to tell them apart, though it is remarkable that through Jeremy Irons’ duelling performances we gradually key into the subtle distinctive mannerisms distinguishing them from each other. It might be strange speaking of chemistry between two characters performed by one actor, and yet Irons is utterly convincing in this connection, letting their opposing differences balance out each other to deepen this eerie, spiritual bond.

Indeed, the Mantle twins are two puzzle pieces that fit together almost too well, and in one dream sequence this is literalised in a fleshy bodily protrusion joining them together through their navels, like an overgrown umbilical cord. This harmonious albeit disturbing symbiosis only starts to deteriorate when it is interrupted by a third, exterior force – a woman, who Beverly starts to fall for. It is a transgression beyond the brothers’ boundaries that attacks their minds like a disease, and begins to erode the very foundations of their sanity.

Ice cold imagery in the blocking and colours, always examining the formal point and counterpoint between Elliot and Beverly.

And yet in this wedge being driven between them, there is also an inverse, almost subconscious reaction to counter it. As their dissatisfaction with being separate entities grows stronger, a general frustration with the natural human body similarly intensifies. It has been teased since the very first scene set during their childhood where the two brothers consider the possibility of asexual human reproduction, thus erasing the complexities of sexual intimacy, and maintaining their relationship as a self-contained unit. In the present as Beverly continues to mentally decline, once again does he begin to imagine alternate, mutated versions of the human body.

Such a pointed use of this frame within a frame, all part of Cronenberg’s astounding achievement in both form and style as he paints out a picture of mental decline and isolation.

The bizarrely warped contraptions which he fashions from metal and dubs his “gynaecological instruments” are all part of this delusion, as he conceives of mutated female bodies that he considers more natural than the more regular alternative. As he prepares to operate on an unsuspecting woman using these devices, his red-clad assistants dress him in similarly bright red scrubs, visually transforming him into a pagan priest ready to sacrifice an innocent to some dark god of science and blood. It is in this operating room-turned-chapel that he believes he possesses the power to twist carnal flesh into whatever image he desires, though fortunately for his patient he is torn away before causing any long-lasting harm, maniacally proclaiming his firm belief in the anatomical flaws of the human body.

“There’s nothing the matter with the instrument! It’s the body! The woman’s body was all wrong.”

A natural dissolve in this window reflection, binding together the scientist and his subject.
A priest, his acolytes, his religious tools, and his chapel – heavily religious imagery in the operating room with these dominant reds.

Such alien contraptions were simply not meant for ordinary humans. The bodies they are designed for are those which are not reflections of the minds trapped inside – some may even call them mutants, as this is certainly how Elliot and Beverly begin to perceive themselves in their deep-seated dysphoria. Together they ponder legend of Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker who died mere hours apart, serving as a devastating ideal towards which they fatefully strive. In turning his surgical instruments on his brother, Elliot is by proxy turning them on himself, and begins to manifest their mental deterioration upon their physical bodies.

Dead Ringers may be a uniquely Cronenbergian film in its visual style and psychological drama, and yet its roots in such literary horrors as Frankenstein and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde provides a strong foundation in Gothic storytelling. Here, the fatal flaw is an inescapable co-dependency, and the result is as tragic as any of its literary influences. In a montage of long dissolves across the Mantles’ chaotic laboratory of bloody instruments and machines as it comes to an end, Cronenberg finally settles on their cold corpses, lying in each other’s arms. In death they are inseparable and indistinguishable, and for the first time since they shared a womb, they are well and truly one.

An inevitably tragic ending in these perfectly blocked compositions.

Dead Ringers is not currently available to stream in Australia.

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