Judge Mike Pinsky reminds you that he's not that kind of doctor.
"Pain creates character distortion."—Dr. Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons)
Gentlemen, welcome to our clinic. Today, we have a particularly tasty surgical procedure for you. Even our esteemed colleague Dr. Benway, medical manipulator par excellence (oh yes, take a bow), will concur that this one is a pinnacle of pathological wonders. Gentlemen, I ask you: can Siamese twins survive unattached? Can they switch selves and not even know they've done it? To answer these and so many other burning questions, I give you our master surgeon, the nabob of nip and tuck, Dr. David Cronenberg.
Facts of the Case
Reading from the file, I note the following:
"Dead Ringers: the Mantle Brothers, Elliot and Beverly (Jeremy Irons), are twin gynecologists. Their specialty is infertility. Beverly, marked by a feminine name, is the more passive of the pair, the one who stays at home, maintaining the domestic stability of their household (and their medical practice). But as Elliot points out, 'The truth is, nobody can tell us apart. We are perceived as one person.'
One of their patients is actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold), who bears three cervices. She wants to bear natural children, to produce a new life from her body, but she is infertile. She becomes the Mantles' lover, unaware that the brothers switch identities constantly in their exploits with women (Elliot is the seducer, then turning them over to his weaker brother). Frightened by their deception, she leaves them, wounding Beverly. Strung out on drugs, he obsesses over his medical instruments, looking for ways to control the unpredictable body through rational science: 'There's nothing the matter with the instrument. It's the body! The woman's body is all wrong!' Mutant bodies require mutant instruments, a technology which accounts for Chance: 'The patients are getting strange. They look alright on the outside, but their insides are…deformed. I had to deal with it somehow! Radical technology was required!'"
I wrote the lines above several years ago, part of a chapter on David Cronenberg in my book, Future Present. They read now like a summary record for a medical patient, long discharged. There is also a stack of comments indicating subsequent treatment: notes for teaching Dead Ringers in a course on medical rhetoric from a few years back. A relapse, if you will.
What is this addiction to Dead Ringers? Beverly (or is it Elliot?) dismisses the need for suffering. "Pain creates character distortion," he announces to Claire. "It's simply not necessary." (And perhaps it is another sign of addiction that I repeat this quote from above.) But Claire relishes pain. She needs "to be punished." Pills, sexual degradation—this woman is a piece of work. At first, the Mantles do not understand her—perhaps they never do—but they have always seen women as aliens. "They're so different from us, and all because we don't live underwater," they decide as children, following a logic that borders on the sociopathic.
The Mantles cannot understand women, but they are addicted. They must master this Other, technologize it. They become gynecologists, invent the valuable "Mantle Retractor," taxonomize and dissect, and reduce the frightening foreignness of fertility to its base components. Addiction is about mastery: the suspension of power between the junk and the junkie. The junkie takes the junk and thinks he is in control. He can purchase it, cook it, shoot it into his veins. It is his choice. Or is the junk in control, whispering its soothing promise of submission. Believe that you are in control. But I will transform you.
When Claire begins to take hold of Beverly (much like her favored pills take hold of her), Elliot prescribes mutazamine, whose name suggests transformation. Indeed, Beverly is transforming, developing empathy for this dangerous and addicted other whose name ("Niveau") marks her as alien to the Mantles' enclosed world. "We've always shared everything," Beverly whines. Claire snaps, "I'm not a thing."
Beverly, grappling with the notion that women are more than just bodies, tries to define the feminine as a mutation. He tries to fight. The addiction has taken hold, and the metabolic transformation is underway. We should have seen it coming: Beverly's name prepares us for his breakdown. He must become other to himself. Beverly becomes his own Siamese twin, separating from himself into a haze of drugs and bad behavior. This is the progression of empathy, if empathy is seen as an addiction to the Other. Empathy as junk, as psychotropic drug.
And if Beverly has the junk sickness, so does Elliot. "Whatever's in his bloodstream goes directly into mine. That's an objective medical opinion," the extrovert of the pair announces, in one last effort to assert scientific mastery. "Beverly and I just have to get synchronized. Once we're synchronized, it'll be easy…"
In the surreal world of Elliot and Beverly Mantle, surgeons wear crimson scrubs, as if the body has already turned inside out. Spare (twin?) sets of "gynecological instruments for mutant women" are available from your local art gallery. And twins can sleep in separate bedrooms but share a single circulatory system. This is a world that can only exist inside a David Cronenberg film.
David Cronenberg based his screenplay (reassembled from drafts by Crimes of the Future cohort Norman Snider) on the sordid tale of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, drug-addled twin gynecologists who self-destructed in their posh New York apartment in 1975. Perhaps it is a telling detail of this case that most sources misidentify Stewart as "Steven." The twins did have a habit of switching identities, at least with each other. Fascinated with the premise, Cronenberg transformed the material into his most sublime film, a steady and empathic study of the descent of man. He was transformed as well, from a cult director with a reputation for gore and chaos into a mature and cool dissector of character, a skill carried over into films like M. Butterfly and Spider.
Cronenberg works here for the first time with director of photography Peter Suschitsky, whose eye for cool and controlled tones lends to Cronenberg's increasingly sure hand as director. The casting lends just the right touch of gravitas: Jeremy Irons and Geneviève Bujold can both turn from furiously aloof to total collapse on a dime. Irons obviously has the showcase role here. But he shrewdly does not make the Mantles simply one guy in two costumes separated by a motion-controlled camera. Look at the faces of Beverly and Elliot. They are quite simply two different men who think they are interchangeable. Irons gives subtle clues—the movement of their eyes, the assuredness of their hands—that tip off the audience even when the brother's have switched Beverly's muted tones and Elliot's bold colors.
Bujold provides the film with much needed balance. While Irons slithers toward the extremes, she must remain the center of the Mantle Brothers' addiction: alluring, vulnerable, yet frustratingly individual. Claire is an aging woman in pain, an "emotional hooker," who allows herself to suffer in order to cover her own sense of failure, like biting your own tongue to counter a pain in your chest. Such a role could easily veer toward the sentimental, with Claire becoming a lost soul victimized by the predatory doctors. Claire as traditional hysteric. But Claire's reserves of strength and her psychological journey (too much of which stays in the background due to Cronenberg's focus on the Mantles) could have carried a movie all on their own.
Dead Ringers demonstrates definitively that Cronenberg has a critical eye for sexual politics matched by few other male directors. The Mantle Brothers are gynecologists (a fact which caused many male actors to balk at the script when approached by Cronenberg). But they are always struggling to understand, trapped by their reflective interiority, the body as extension. How does desire transfer to the physical body to produce, say, children? I am reminded of Veronica's dream in The Fly, her terror over what sort of parasitic creature is living inside her womb. How many other male directors would place themselves in that operating room, as Cronenberg did, immediately connecting women's anxiety over their fertility with the filmmaking process itself?
"We make women fertile, and that's all we do," remarks Beverly, both as a point of pride (the brothers' technological mastery over the body as broken machine) and a concession (they can do no more than repair women without understanding them). Claire's body too is a site of surplus, with its three cervices and its capacity to ingest both massive quantities of pills and emotional abuse. Claire's excess is exactly what the Mantles want to master and be mastered by. But the clear sign of Cronenberg's artistic genius is that Claire must learn to cope with her own identity, the addiction of her own body, as well. Just as William Burroughs suggested, the body makes its own junk. Fertility and addiction collapse into one another: welcome to the world of David Cronenberg.
Dead Ringers once received the Criterion treatment—as should all Cronenberg's films in a perfect world—but that edition is now out of print. The older version had a non-anamorphic transfer, but was generally solid (and a damn sight better than the muddy VHS copy that once broke on me during a class). The new Warner Brothers edition reformats the film from Criterion's 1.66:1 (Cronenberg's preferred ratio, although he shoots open matte) to the American standard 1.85:1. It is not a dramatic improvement, but Cronenberg has yet to get the respect from movie studios that he deserves. The new 5.1 audio track is clean and clear, letting Howard Shore's evocative music settle into your pores.
Unfortunately, while Warner Brothers has done wonders with the new print, the extras seem to have been surgically removed, like an unnecessary appendix. The Criterion release has a fantastic commentary track featuring Cronenberg and company. Cronenberg is always an astute critic of his own work, but in this case (unless you can track down a copy of the older DVD), you will have to make do with brief interview clips and a promotional featurette filmed back during production. Instead, a recently recorded commentary track with Jeremy Irons is offered. Irons is so sedate here that he might be channeling third-act Beverly Mantle on a bucket of Quaaludes. There is little thematic analysis or behind-the-scenes gossip (he focuses mostly on acting technique), and while he seems pleased by the film, we sense that he is a bit cold toward Cronenberg's work, which he deems too "bizarre" for him. This, in spite of the fact that he returned to work with Cronenberg on M. Butterfly and admits (rightly) that his 1991 Oscar win was as much for his daring performance in Dead Ringers as it was for his desperately slick Claus Von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune.
A trailer, some filmographies, and a cute but inconsequential "psychological profiler" (do you agree or disagree that "rubber tubing and surgical clamps can be useful in non-medical settings?") round out the extras.
Disappointing extras aside, the new Warner Brothers release of Dead Ringers should please David Cronenberg addicts and newcomers alike. This is one of his most accessible films, measured and balanced, with striking performances and a mature approach to material that most other artists would find daunting. Jeremy Irons and Geneviève Bujold submit frighteningly sympathetic performances, and Cronenberg deftly negotiates his way through the story to reveal secrets about the human self—our bodies, our sexual identities, our addictions—that few other artists could handle with even a fraction of his success.
I feel that talking about Dead Ringers once again has worked some of the junk out of my system. I can have some cake and orange soda and relax now. My tapping foot, my shaking hand? Those are signs of anticipation for Cronenberg's next film. I'm done with Dead Ringers.
Maybe I'll just pop the disc in for one more spin. I can kick later.
The Mantle Brothers are discharged from their duties for reckless behavior and medical malpractice. Director David Cronenberg is released. Warner Brothers is ordered not to remove any more appendices without proper authorization. We'll send you our bill.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Jeremy Irons
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