Manuel Betancourt

Dead Ringers, or How this isn’t child play

July 10, 2013 · in Film

Dead Ringers

“You haven’t had any experience until I’ve had it, too.” – Elliot to his twin brother Beverly.

This post is part of Nat’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot Series.

This week’s installment concerns David Cronenberg’s 1988’s psycho-sexual thriller Dead Ringers, starring Jeremy Irons (as the gynecologist twins) and Genevieve Bujold (the actress who falls for one of them). This was my first encounter with the Mantle brothers’ saga and it was as twisted as one would expect from Cronenberg. One has to wonder if Claire’s speech (“I’ve been around a bit. I’ve seen some creepy things in the movie business. This is the most disgusting thing that’s ever happened to me.”) isn’t what the Canadian director hopes his audiences will leave the theater thinking after catching one of his films.

Choosing a shot for this article ended up being simpler than I imagined, mostly because an early image I got fixated on ended up being threaded through the rest of the film. After we meet the precocious (if slightly socially inadequate) Mantle twins attempting to procure a female for their underwater sex experiment, we see them playing operation with a plastic model:

Dead Ringers 01

I love this shot for the way it blends together the mundane world of child’s play with the twisted psycho-sexual vibes that will later self-destruct the Mantle twins. This first encounter with the twins sets up their preternatural relationship; already they function as one, anticipating each other’s thoughts and unable to do anything about the way the rest of the world looks at them. When playing with the bio-model, they work together and while here it is presented as a harmless characteristic that helps them diagnose and operate on the doll, this will be their own undoing once something gets in between them and begins gnawing (quite literally at one point) at the thread that holds them together. The more I watched the film, I was amazed by how Cronenberg had managed to locate so many visual and thematic echoes of the film in this simple scene/shot:

Dead Ringers 03 Dead Ringers 04Note how the ties holding down the doll will recur again in the first sexual encounter we witness with Claire. But the violent sexuality is already present in the doll: she is being held down by her throat — hardly appropriate even for make-believe doctor play, no? That the doll is transparent (making her insides visible) anticipates and performs the very idea of having beauty contests for people’s insides (“Ever heard of inner beauty?” has never been quite a creepy a line as it is delivered — as a come-one nonetheless — here by Jeremy Irons).

Dead Ringers 07Dead Ringers 08The scene also presents us to an early model of what will be the defining moment of the Mantle twins’ early career: the creation of a surgical tool that earns them a gold-plated version of it (which recurs again in a more sinister way during one awkward patient appointment later in the film).

But what I found most fascinating was to see the final climactic moment of the film being telegraphed so early:Dead Ringers 02 Dead Ringers 05

In the early scenes when we meet the young twins, their movements (and wardrobe) make them almost indistinguishable. But while it is hard (and it gets harder) to tell them apart as the film moves along, we’re usually aided by costume choices that help us differentiate Elliot “you must be the shit” Mantle (seen with bold accessories) from Beverly “the sweet one” Mantle (usually wearing glasses and soft fabrics). Yet in the final moments, we see both twins costumed alike (boxers and a jacket) and mirroring each other as they celebrate their birthday.

And of course, the anatomical doll clearly prepares us for the moment when Beverly wakes up and Cronenberg reveals what’s become of Elly:

Dead Ringers 06This is no longer child’s play, even if Beverly is here reduced to a child-like blubbering mess. While we see the final image of the two brothers cradled in one another, Elliot’s words echoed in my head: “You haven’t had any experience until I’ve had it, too.” What Beverly accomplished wasn’t so much a severing but a self-mutilation.