Dead Ringers Review

If there’s one thing I hope to achieve with my occasional reviews of David Cronenberg’s films for DVD Times, it’s the correction of a common misconception about his work. He’s often called a cold director, his icy objectivity preventing any feeling from coming through. This is so wrong in every conceivable way, I can’t begin to understand how its survived the past thirty years. Take a close look and you see films which are a riot of complicated, messy feelings made by a filmmaker with a fierce sympathy and defiant love for his sad, damaged leading characters. Sometimes the surface is glacial, all the better to conceal the teeming soul beneath. More often, as in Dead Ringers, the emotions are placed centre-stage in all their horrible, messy, painful reality. It’s a vital film in his career, marking the point at which he no longer needed to use prosthetic metaphors for the appalling multitude of ways in which we can fuck-up our own lives and those of everyone around us. This would eventually lead to Crash, his masterpiece and, in my not particularly humble opinion, the best film of the 1990s. But Dead Ringers itself is so near to being a masterpiece that it makes no difference and it remains one of the most devastatingly moving films ever made, with a central performance from Jeremy Irons which is nothing less than astonishing.

On its first release in 1988, it’s fair to say that Dead Ringers met with a certain lack of comprehension. It annoyed those audiences who had loved the gory details of The Fly, alienated some feminist critics who completely missed the point and irritated some Cronenberg fans who considered it a bit too mainstream and, well, just not icky enough. Needless to say, they were all wrong and time has allowed the film to be reassessed as not only one of Cronenberg’s most typical works but as an essential horror movie in its own right. It positively begs for interpretation, a positive gift for psychoanalytic theorists who have just read Kristeva. But once the academics have picked it over, Dead Ringers remains strangely enigmatic; as mysterious and beautiful a work as anything in the horror genre, overflowing with emotions so direct and intense that you can feel your heart about to burst.

Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Irons) are successful gynaecologists who share women, both as patients and lovers. Elliot is a smooth womaniser who does the pick-ups, allowing Beverly, his shy and intellectual brother, to take advantage. They consider themselves a perfect combination, perhaps a little too perfect – as Elliot says to his brother, “You haven’t had any experience until I’ve had it too.” All goes well until an actress, Claire Niveau (Bujold), comes into their lives. After having sex with Elliot, she is passed on to Beverly who falls in love with her. After discovering she has been ‘shared’, she leaves for Hollywood in disgust and Beverly’s obsessive love for her comes between him and Elliot. Gradually becoming, like Claire, addicted to prescription drugs, Beverly can no longer function and, as his brother keeps the business going, he descends into a drug-addled hell of paranoia and depression.

Dead Ringers contains all manner of Cronenbergian themes, matured into a form which doesn’t need the kind of gross-out horror which was interspersed throughout his earlier work. It’s unusual in that it has a loose basis in real life; the case of the Marcus twins, New York gynaecologists who were found dead in their apartment. However, although its credited as being based on a book inspired by the case, Cronenberg’s film comes across as entirely part of his universe. We have the obsession with the body and ways in which it can be mutated – Claire’s trifurcated womb; his desire to disrupt the idea of a Cartesian schism between mind and body; his fascination with sex and the ways in which it relates to other areas of human behaviour; the dangerous power of science to change the nature of the individual; the notion of what Barbara Creed called ‘the monstrous feminine’.

Some writers have claimed it as a perfect example of Kristeva’s theory of abjection – simply put, a state of simultaneous disgust and fascination at something which seems intolerable and unacceptable. Indeed, you can certainly read this into the film because of Cronenberg’s continual interest in breaking down divisions between mind and body. He sees gynaecology as a metaphor for the way men try to perpetuate a mind/body split – something the film constantly disrupts by showing how the body impacts on the mind, leading ultimately to insanity. Even on a simple level, you can see how naïve the Mantle twins are – believing that they can interfere with women’s bodies, on either a medical or sexual basis, without there being any consequences. Claire destroys this illusion for them and some writers have suggested that, as such, she is to be seen as a terrifying ‘monstrous female’ who Cronenberg portrays as responsible for the ensuing tragedy, But that’s a very superficial reading of the film. What Claire does is actually perfectly defensible and even laudable – she forces the Mantles to confront their assumptions about women – and it’s the brothers own unthinking misogyny which leads to their downfall. Claire’s trifurcated womb is a medical impossibility but I don’t think Cronenberg considers that it makes her a ‘monster’. It’s a plot device to bring her together with the twins as much as a serious comment on ‘woman’ per se. The real significance, beyond her inability to have children, is the effect it has on Beverly who, unable to deal with the way she disturbs his ordered intellectual life, begins to consider her a mutant. In his insanity, he applies this to all women.

Yet, this makes the film sound like an academic exercise, the thing which is most definitely is not. What it achieves is considerably more potent. It gets inside the heads of its main characters, burrowing deep into their minds and implicating us in their encroaching madness. Cronenberg’s ability to involve us emotionally had been demonstrated in The Dead Zone, the vital bridging film in his career, and particularly in The Fly, where he turned an icky gore movie into an operatic romantic tragedy. Here, his probing into a distorted vision of the world is largely dependent upon the abilities of Jeremy Irons. Playing twins is not something unusual in cinema history but Irons goes a step further, beyond the gimmicks and the clever trick photography which allows him to act with himself. He distinguishes the twins and makes them real for us. At first it’s easy – Elliot is the body, Beverly the brains – but as the film goes on he complicates the two. We begin to understand and sympathise with Elliot’s position as the public face of ‘Mantle Inc’ as he calls it. Elliot’s glib smoothness changes to a complex love for his brother as he tries to hold things together, gradually realising that he can never be separated from Beverly either in public perception or, more significantly, at the root of his being. Meanwhile, Irons plays Beverly with such immediacy and assurance that his descent into madness is painfully real. By the end, when the two brothers really are – in Elliot’s words – ‘synchronised’, we’re so emotionally shattered that we barely notice the irony of them finally acting as one. It’s one of the greatest performances in film history and Irons has never even begun to match it – although he tried very hard as Humbert in Lolita and as the diplomat in Cronenberg’s misbegotten but not uninteresting M. Butterfly, a film crying out to be re-evaluated as a Cronenbergian mind-fuck movie rather than a rather daft literal adaptation of an overrated play.

I’ve referred to Dead Ringers as a horror film, something which could be disputed. Certainly, it doesn’t deliver the goods in terms of graphic physical horror. Yet the label seems apt. For women, it tends to have an instinctive horrific effect because of the subject matter and I have a couple of female friends who can’t get beyond the gynaecology scenes. But the real horror comes from what the film deals with. It’s about extremes of emotion and sensation and it takes us into places of our psyche – obsession, disgust, fear – that we may not particularly want to go. The intense sense of connection between the twins is disturbing and, as the film goes on, it’s the potential severance of this which becomes horrifying. Towards the end, Irons releases a cry of pain – “Ellie…Ellie…Elllie…” which could have been ridiculous. But it’s a shattering moment and the pain and terror which the moment contains could justifiably be described as Shakespearean. There are elements of ‘body horror’ here, that overused term from a thousand dissertations, but it strikes me that this is a film about the horror found inside the mind or even, if using the word doesn’t open a whole can of worms, the soul. In other words, I think this is a genuine horror film, far more so than many teenage-oriented slasher flicks which trade on the clichés of the genre without ever getting into your head.

After eight feature films, its not surprising that Cronenberg could make such a smooth and accomplished piece of work. But Dead Ringers was a big step forward for him. It contains his best direction of actors to that point – Genevieve Bujold is remarkable, creating a completely credible character out of relatively little screen time – and sees him working with the team that would accompany him on all his subsequent films. This is largely the same as worked with him from Fast Company onwards but with Peter Suschitzky replacing Mark Irwin as DP. The look of the film – cold blues suddenly giving way at key points to brash splashes of colour – is remarkably consistent and Ronald Sanders’ editing creates a pace which is leisurely without being slow. A lot has been written about the technical miracle of presenting the twinsMuch credit should also be given to Howard Shore for producing one of the most beautiful music scores I’ve ever heard. The rich main theme – lavishly orchestrated – is sweetly sad, setting the tone for a film which is very much a work of horror but rarely – bar an amusing dream scene in which the separation of twins is given a physical embodiment - an obvious one.

In fact, it’s this sadness which is the prevailing impression left by the film. Cronenberg tells a story of a doctor who watched it and then said, “Can you tell me why I feel so fucking sad having seen this film?”. The director says its because the film is about “the ineffable sadness that is an element of the human condition”. That’s perhaps a bit pretentious but it gets to the nub of the film’s effect. It’s about watching two people descending into madness and pointless death with no power to do anything to stop it. After watching it, you get the sense that what happens to them was inevitable from the moment of their birth, it was inside them waiting to happen. The beauty of the film – the way it evokes the way siblings can relate to each other, the deep and affirming purity of the bond of love which electrifies the final scene between the brothers and perhaps heightens the horror of what happens – makes it all the more sad. The key line of the film is “Separation can be a terrible thing”, spoken right at the end. This was used on the posters and sounds like a cliché, but the intensity of the scene is such that it doesn’t seem like one when you hear it in context. Its deeply, profoundly meant and so is the whole film. We’re so used to directors as glib put-on artists that this is somewhat alarming at first. But its also cathartic and redeeming and I defy anyone to watch Dead Ringers and not be deeply moved. In fact, if you remain unaffected, then you might want to check your pulse.

The Disc

This is the fourth North American release of Dead Ringers. Back in 1998, Anchor Bay released a barebones disc which was generally considered inadequate. The following year, Criterion did the film proud with a DVD which contained a fine visual transfer and some good extras but which had a disappointingly poor soundtrack. Last year, we got a budget re-release of the out-of-print Criterion edition. Now we can welcome a Warner Brothers release which is, I think, the definitive release of the film. Although it contains largely different extras from the Criterion release – and lacks any significant input from Cronenberg – it has a great transfer and a riveting new commentary track.

The film is well presented. It’s anamorphically transferred at a ratio of 1.85:1. This has caused some controversy amongst admirers of the film who have pointed out that Cronenberg’s preferred viewing ratio of the film is 1.66:1 as on the Criterion DVD. However, as the film would have been matter from fullscreen to 1.85:1 for cinema viewing, I don’t personally think there’s a problem. It’s certainly a good transfer with a level of grain which I found satisfactorily cinematic and rich, strong colours. There’s plenty of detail and the only serious flaw is a small amount of dirt on the print throughout. There are two soundtracks, one in Dolby Digital 2.0 replicating the original stereo presentation of the film and a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track. As ever, I prefer the track which most faithfully replicates how the film was made and the 2.0 track keeps the dialogue clear and presents the music well. The 5.1 track adds some surround ambience in places and gives the music a slight boost. Whichever track you choose, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

The main extra feature is a new commentary from Jeremy Irons and it’s a particularly good one. He reveals how he distinguished the characters – the well known method of walking in different ways for example – and how he built up the method during the early days of shooting. The difficulty seems to have been to make the characters different but sufficiently alike. Listening to this track leaves you awestruck at Irons’ ability as an actor and his eloquence in being able to explain his thinking. It’s not a fast moving track and its not very funny either, but I found it completely compulsive. If you’re a fan of the film then it’s essential listening.

We also get a brief making-of featurette which was also on the Criterion release and brief interview snippets with Cronenberg, producer Marc Boyman and co-writer Norman Snider, which can be accessed either individually or in a block. Cronenberg is typically fascinating and very open about his filmmaking. There’s also a profile of Jeremy Irons which contains interview footage and seems intended to introduce him to North American audiences as an ‘actor’s actor’.

Add to this the theatrical trailer, some brief biographies and a daft ‘Psychological Profiler’ which attempts the difficult trick of drawing humour out of one of the most depressing films ever made, and you have a very impressive release.

The film has optional subtitles but the extra features do not.

Dead Ringers gave Cronenberg the courage to probe deeply into the human condition and revealed a talent to delve so far that it makes his films uncomfortable to watch. By the time he refined this in Crash, the result was a work which I find so emotionally forthright and devastating that I find it painful to watch. If you’re a Cronenberg fan and want the best release of Dead Ringers then I would choose this Warner edition. If you’re a newcomer to his work then this will certainly tell you whether you have a taste for his very particular world, although it might perhaps be better to start with one of his more accessible films such as The Dead Zone.

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