Dead Ringers  – ★★★★
David Cronenberg’s 1988 feature Dead Ringers is the director’s “trademark” film starring Jeremy Irons, and loosely based on a real-life story of identical twin brothers working as gynaecologists in New York. The story closely follows Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons), who share their lives so closely that they not only divide their professional tasks among themselves, but also date same women. However, their extreme closeness and obsessive working trends, as well as the appearance of a certain woman (Geneviève Bujold), soon results in their well-thought-out life patterns spiralling out of control. The film’s story is fascinating, and Cronenberg-style components are well presented. However, what makes this film truly irresistible is Irons’s dual performance.
From the very first scenes, Cronenberg immerses us into the world of Elliot and Beverly, and their twinness. The two brothers are portrayed as quite distinguished ones, known for their radical methods. They are odd, a bit aloof to the outside world, with their own eccentricities, but capable of ingenuity and originality, such as coming up with a new invention used in gynaecological surgery. Though both twins are known for their brilliant scholarly research, it is actually sensitive and emotionally insecure Beverly who often does all the hard and “dirty” work, such as writing academic papers, performing complex demonstrative surgeries and running a private clinic, while Elliot, who prefers the “glamour” of life, takes care of a “fun” side of things, such as pursuing women, attending business dinners and making speeches.
Now, the lives of identical twins have been fascinating people for centuries. From claims of extraordinary intuition to telepathy, twins and their interaction with themselves and the outside world are often topics of speculation. Often sharing an extremely close mental and emotional bond, which they may find virtually impossible to replicate with anyone else on earth, there have been real-life instances of twins sliding down into an obsessive-compulsive mode of a “no-outsiders”-world, which any marriage could only envy, as well as fierce competition with each other, depending on the circumstances, see Brigette & Paula Powers, Lisbeth & Angelique Raeven or the extreme case of June & Jennifer Gibbons (the latter is the case where the twins were so close that one had to die so another can actually live a full life). Given these examples, some of the mad synchronisations of Mantle twins in the movie are not all that unbelievable. In Dead Ringers, Cronenberg explores the too-familiar issues of how similar twins could really be, and what they would really be prepared to sacrifice for one another.
Cronenberg is the master of presenting “the uncomfortable” on screen, and Dead Ringers is no exception. The topic itself is “uncomfortable”: the strangeness of the twins’ lives, their weirdly-set gynaecological practice where one twin can begin a woman’s examination, while another twin may end it. Every woman’s nightmare is there, and it is on that basis, perhaps, that Robert DeNiro refused the leading role (not to mention all the required conversations in the movie about women’s periods and sexual intercourse). Strange deformations are also Cronenberg’s speciality: in the film, Claire has three uterus openings, and there is a dream sequence where Beverly pictures his brother being physically connected to him by a strange-looking human cord. This is not all: there are also bondage sex, ritual-like operations, and all other unsettling elements not for faint-hearted.
Gently touching on the twins’ childhood and their early achievements in surgery, Dead Ringers soon turns into the real problem facing the Mantle twins: Claire Niveau, played by Geneviève Bujold. This woman “contributes a confusing element to the Mantle brothers’ saga”, as Elliot puts it. In the movie, Claire becomes a third person in an already established “twin-pact”, and the drama here is obvious. First taken on a date by Elliot, Claire soon gets intimate with Beverly, not even realising the substitution, and when she does find out about the twins, another drama is created: Beverly is seemingly in love with Claire, and Elliot, full of self-interest and with his wounded ego, feels that he was taken advantage of and wants his share of “fun”. At this point comes one of the major problems of Dead Ringers: the lack of clear direction. The film does not know where to settle at exactly: the Elliot-Claire-Beverly drama, or Elliot-Beverly’s extraordinary closeness and its consequences. Cronenberg eventually chooses the latter, but also wastes some time in between. At the end, the Mantle brothers’ destructive relationship proves too much: they both try to “cover” for each other, but their fall into an abyss is just too hard. At one point, usually insecure Beverly cries: “there is nothing wrong with the instruments – it is the woman’s body which is all wrong”, signalling to his brother that his mind is not functioning properly. However, nearer the end, it is actually the usually composed Elliot who totally “disintegrates”.
However, despite this lack of clear agenda and the odd pacing (and sometimes irrelevant scenes), this picture is Cronenberg through-and-through, and this means there are cleverly-devised dialogue sequences, attention to detail in every scene, and engaging and gripping subject matter. The film’s ending is dramatic and satisfying: Elliot and Beverly’s drug addiction is at its worst, and their slide into madness is at its deepest.
Throughout the story, it is fascinating to see the twins interacting with each other. Their bond is very close and they share all of their life experiences. At one point one twin says to another: “You didn’t have any experience, until I had it too”, and another also says: “I trust you to make us look good”. The film uses a “split- screen” technique when the twins should in one frame, but it is Jeremy Irons’s convincing performance as twins which is above all praise. The twins look and sometimes dress alike, and yet, most of the time, we can tell straightaway whether we see Elliot (Elly) or Beverly (Bev). This is due to the outstanding performance by Irons who employs slightly different demeanour while portraying each of the twin. The performances require real skill, but Irons is certainly the man for the job, and doing this job brilliantly, since he has this uncanny sense of presence and authority which makes Elliot so vivid, and that sense of compassion and care for the underdog, which makes Beverly human and alive. Jeremy Irons’s Elliot is confident to the point of being openly frivolous and cynical, while Irons’s Beverly is more serious and seems to have some kind of moral restraint, at least outwardly. Geneviève Bujold as Claire Niveau, the twins’ love interest, is also good and creates an interesting personality.
The year 1987-1988 was the year of “brotherly love” in Hollywood, as not only the comedy Twins (1988) premiered and had its share of success, but also more critically-acclaimed Rain Man (1988), a story of two unlikely brothers, won an Academy Award in the Best Picture category. Dead Ringers was first titled Gemini, then Twins, and then eventually Dead Ringers, meaning that the film had had its fair share of fantastical makeover. However, few people actually know that, as with Rain Man, it is actually loosely based on a real-life story. The original inspiration for Dead Ringers came from a 1976 article published in Esquire about identical twin brothers, Stewart and Cyril Marcus, working as gynaecologists in New York City. The article is all about the twins’ peculiarities and eccentricities, the sliding of their professional standards, and their tragic and mysterious deaths in the apartment complex, which strongly suggests the involvement of drugs. Dead Ringers was based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, but it is the Marcus brothers’ extraordinary lives which gave an idea for it.
Dead Ringers could either be misunderstood or loved. It is a real treat for Cronenberg fans who will indulge in Jeremy Irons’s brilliant performance and in the film’s unflinching portrayal of strange diseases of bodies and minds, and people’s dualities. It has an interesting premise of a twins’ life: its joy and its price, sometimes echoing the situations of any real-life twins. Though having some “plot” problems and being too long, this psychologically-enticing and disturbing film ends up being strangely philosophical and melancholic.
15 Comments Add yours
I feel like I watched this when I couldn’t really appreciate it, and it might be worth a rewatch despite its flaws. Nice review.
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Yes, I think there are things to admire here. Irons’s performance is memorable, and Cronenberg always delivers something deliciously macabre, but I was mainly attracted to the concept behind the movie: two identical brothers who are professionally successful, and their descent into madness. Would be nice to hear your views if you do decide to re-watch it.
Great post 🙂 I love Dead Ringers, that would probably be my number 4 favorite David Cronenberg film of all-time. Yeah, I have a blog entry on him on my site too 🙂 Aside from the direction, it is hard to talk about Dead Ringers without mentioning Jeremy Irons in not one, but two brilliant performances. And this was before the days of CGI and stuff. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂
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Thank you! If I had to consider performances and ideas this will be a straight 10/10 film for me, but unfortunately I do not think this film incorporated the character of Bujold than well and wanted to do too many things at once. On a Cronenberg’s own scale though, it is still one of his very best.
I also cannot help by notice how in time Cronenberg lets his genius reins fall. For example, I had such high hopes for A Dangerous Method because the topic there is close to my heart, and my disappointment really was very great.
Good review. I’ve seen clips of Dead Ringers, but never the whole thing. It does have a fascinating concept, but it looks like it could’ve been a bit better. I’m sure Jeremy Irons did a great job with this movie (my thoughts on him playing a literal copycat in a certain other movie aside). One documentary you should check out from Irons is Trashed. It was a bit mind-blowing seeing how committed and sincere he was to clean up the planet which was a stark contrast with him playing so many villains and morally dubious characters.
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I will certainly seek out this documentary, many thanks! It is sometimes people that play villains that have the biggest heart – Alan Rickman comes to mind. He was such a down-to-earth actor.
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Sure thing. Trashed was a huge surprise for me and it was awesome seeing an actor who has been in multiple mainstream movies to work on an indie documentary and actually doing some good instead of just showing up for a paycheck like so many others.
I’ve noticed that, too! I swear most villain actors end up being the kindest people in real life. It’s hard to hate on Jeremy Irons for actually doing something beneficial for the planet after watching Trashed. You see him clean up beaches, do soil toxicology, comfort a Vietnamese family who have a deformed child due to the aftereffects of agent orange, and he calls out a regional politician in Iceland for neglecting his duties for his constituents. Sorry to reference THAT clone he voiced, but it needs to be mentioned. How bad does one have to suck at their political position when Scar himself is calling one out for their negligence? It certainly made me appreciate him instead of just getting mad at him voicing that character.
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Yes, Jeremy Irons certainly appears not indifferent to many causes and that should be praised. Now that I think about his filmography I see that maybe he also tries to draw attention to different film genres and visual presentations and make a point that not one of them should be considered as somehow “beneath” a classically-trained actor and all have the right to exist and be enjoyed. I see that I previously reviewed him in both The Correspondence (2016) and in The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) and that gets me thinking he is an all-round actor who is not afraid to try his hand in different acting ventures, appearing in classic film adaptations (romance, action, fantasy – all covered!), voicing documentaries and animations, acting in TV series and in theatre productions and even directing music videos.
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I see and it surprised me when I saw Trashed. You bring up interesting points. I knew he was classically-trained, but come to think of it, he was in all different genres of movies. He directed music videos, too? I didn’t even know that.
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