Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Films I Love #24: Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)
Much of David Cronenberg's career has been devoted to fearlessly excavating the strangest, most unsettling corners of human psychology and sexuality, expressing primal emotions through the grotesque "body horror" for which the director was, until recently, best known. In many ways, though Dead Ringers is one of Cronenberg's tamest 80s films in terms of its visceral imagery (admittedly, "tame" is a very relative word here), it's possibly his most disturbing inquiry into the lower reaches of human consciousness. It's the story of twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played, via special effects, by Jeremy Irons) who are so close that their identities are intertwined. Indeed, they take advantage of their identical appearance to swap places with one another at will, taking turns giving public appearances, performing surgeries and research, and even switching off with the women they date. The arrogant, confident Elliot and the shy, sweet Bev are two sides of the same personality, complementing and completing one another, together forming a whole person; neither of them could really exist independently.
Nevertheless, Bev decides that he wants to try severing this intimate bond between the brothers when he falls in love with the movie star Claire (Geneviève Bujold), who starts out as just another of the brothers' mutual conquests. As usual, the more confident Elliot seduces and sleeps with her, then allows Bev to take his place the next night. But when Beverly's bond with the needy, masochistic Claire begins to threaten the connection between the brothers, things start falling apart for all three of them. The film is a nightmarish study of psychological dependency, of unhealthy bonds between people — symbolized by the horrifying dream in which Bev envisions himself and his brother joined together by a meaty umbilical cord, which Claire tries to bite through. The film certainly doesn't lack Cronenberg's signature disturbing imagery, but for the most part its "body horror" is more psychological and internal rather than being inscribed in blood and gore. When Bev, driven mad by isolation and grief, simply unveils his set of tools for operating on "mutant women," it's a visceral chill on par with any of Cronenberg's more grisly set pieces. By locating the film's horror almost entirely in the minds and personae of these twins, Dead Ringers becomes one of Cronenberg's finest, most creepily incisive works.