It’s been a while since I’ve talked about something other than a Final Fantasy game, so let’s take an abrupt non sequitur turn to David Cronenberg’s 1988 film, Dead Ringers.
I’ve lately been dipping back into Cronenberg’s backlog after having ignored him for a few years – and now I feel stupid for doing so, as I feel safe saying that he’s one of my favourite directors. His films have a knack for getting under the skin in a deeply divisive fashion: depending on your inclinations as a viewer they’re either deeply unpleasant experiences to be remembered with a shudder, or a deeply bitter treat, like a shot of rye or tequila. There’s something potent about his blend of visceral horror and detached, cerebral themes, all undercut by a deeply gothic romanticism of the sort that isn’t too far from what Emily Bronte was doing over a century earlier.
I’m starting to sound pretentious, but the point is that the dude’s got a very eccentric style that can be movie magic for me at his best, and Dead Ringers (which is new to me) is one of his best.
Which I’m a bit surprised by, because the premise sounds like the pitch for a boring, sordit HBO prestige show: Eliot and Beverly Mantle are twins (both played by Jeremy Irons) who run a prestigious gynecology practice. The two of them are creepily close to, and dependent upon, one another, sharing pretty much all of their life with each other. Both have a clinical, ultra-rationalist approach to life and both are flagrantly immoral playboys: Eliot likes to seduce his clients and then pass them off none the wiser to Beverly when he gets bored of them. They seem to do this almost less out of a desire to get laid than as a kind of sick scientific experiment. A wrench gets thrown into all of this when they get involved with actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold). While Eliot is prepared to leave her as roadkill, Beverly falls in love with her, creating a wedge between the twins that eventually has them spiraling out of control.
Part of what makes it work is how although Dead Ringers isn’t a horror film, it isn’t exactly a sober drama either. Irons has a weird, horror movie villain line early on where he says something like “you know, I wish we had beauty contests for the inside of bodies as well as the outside.” And it perfectly sets the uncanny, off-kilter tone the movie is going to. Other touches, like the creepy “mutant women” surgical tools, and the dramatic surgical gowns they wear (which make them look a bit like those red cloak guys from The Return of the Jedi) give the movie the aesthetic trappings of a horror film without a lot of the genre’s tropes. The result is it always has this baseline of tension running underneath everything, and Cronenberg is able to draw upon his horror toolkit to make the emotions and drama of his characters seem larger than life.
But it also works because, like Bronte did in Wuthering Heights, Dead Ringers manages to hit upon some interesting stuff with its broken, perverse characters. The twins operate out of a rejection of both solitude and relationships. Their own relation with each other is based on a denial of the other, that the other is just another me. Meanwhile, while they professionally have committed themselves to the study of female anatomy, they know nothing about being in a relationship with a woman. And so their hyper-rationalism breaks down when they have to reckon with the pain of being in love and the loneliness of being an individual. In an extreme sense they represent our own anxieties over these things and how we try to paper over the suffering inherent in the human condition in sometimes messed up ways. And Howard Shore’s melancholy score completely fits all this.
But it also also works because of Jeremy Irons. Dead Ringers was something of a technical marvel back in the day for how it used all sorts of tricks to allow Irons to play two characters who spend most of their scenes together, and the man completely sells it. His icy, aristocratic demeanor is perfect for the twins, and he is able to modulate between being Beverly and Eliot to the point where it’s almost freaky. It’s some bravura acting and some neat, pre-cg camerawork.
So it’s a very fine, very dark movie. As a fair warning I should probably say that it does have some sexual content, and as a Cronenberg movie the squeamish need not apply (especially if surgical/medical stuff easily grosses you out). Ultimately I still prefer the straight up sci-fi horror of The Fly, but you could probably make the case that this is his best film.