Dead Ringers, 1988, directed by David Cronenberg, written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider, from the novel Twins, by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland.
This is a hard one to write about (part of the reason I haven't posted in a while). It doesn't have particularly sympathetic characters, or a knockout plot, but it made me sadder than just about any movie I can think of. It's mostly a question of tone, and Howard Shore's heartbreaker of a score. I can't say enough good things about the music he wrote for this movie; it's not available as an album so you'll have to see the movie to get the effect (which means you'll be presented with the dissonance between what you're hearing and what's on screen); anyway, I highly recommend it; it's much better than his score for the Lord of the Rings movies. But onward:
This is the first image in Dead Ringers:
This is the last:
If either of those makes you queasy, this is going to be a very long movie for you. Jeremy Irons plays Drs. Beverly and Elliot Mantle, twin brothers who run a successful gynecology clinic in Toronto. I can only think of one other gynecologist in a movie: Victor Mott, in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. If you've seen that movie, you know he doesn't come off very well. Neither do these guys, of course. I don't know much about what makes for a good gynecological bedside manner, but this probably isn't it; this is the first scene with Beverly, right after giving an exam to Clare Niveau:
Are all the necessary
parts there, doctor?
Yes, they are.
But there are a couple of
extra ones that shouldn't
I wasn't joking.
Beverly then walks out, leaving Clare there in the stirrups to think about his reassuring exit line. And Beverly's the feminine one; Elliot is much less sympathetic.
So from those not-disquieting-at-all beginnings, things get even weirder. Clare Niveau is an aging c-list actress, in town to work on a d-list soap opera (she also has three cervixes (a "trifurcate"—there actually are bifurcates, but nobody's like Clare). She begins an affair with both Beverly and Elliot (not knowing they're twins). When she finds out, Beverly is devastated, and his relationship with her begins threatening things with his brother. And it pretty much goes downhill from there.
With that description, it's hard for me to explain what moved me so much about this movie. For one thing, Dead Ringers doesn't seem to take place in a world that's recognizeably our own, which helps; you're so disassociated that you latch on to the twins. He does this by keeping the movie to a very limited number of locations; there are only a few outdoor shots in the movie. For the most part, you're in the gray and steel blue settings of the Mantle clinic and the twins' appartment. Put it this way: by the time you see Beverly operating, it doesn't seem strange that he's dressed like this:
So it's one of those movies that kind of slowly pulls you along into places you don't really want to go; by the time Beverly has gone crazy enough to be designing his own surgical instruments ("Gynecological Tools for Operating on Mutant Women,") you're unfortunately right there with him. And where are you? Well, here's one of his designs:
His response, when the hospital has objections to him using these "tools": "There's nothing the matter with the instrument. It's the body! The women's bodies are all wrong!" But by the time Beverly and Elliot start making you feel really queasy, it's too late; you've already fallen into their world.
I give Cronenberg a lot of credit for this movie but I'd be remiss to not mention what an amazing dual performance this is for Jeremy Irons. He's playing against himself, and he doesn't have any obvious tells or costume changes to indicate which twin you're looking at, but you always know. He carries himself differently as each one and convinces you from the first shot that you're looking at two different people. Many people have apparently asked Cronenberg who the Irons look-alike was.
The technical aspects of the twin shots are interesting. The filmmakers were careful to just set things up as if they were using by using motion control cameras and moving matte lines, the filmmakers were able to shoot scenes the way they would have if they'd had two actors. Irons would do the scene twice, playing against a body double. The first time, the body double would read the other twin's lines; the second time, audio from Iron's first take would be piped in. Because the motion camera equipment makes a whole lot of noise, all the dialogue was looped again afterwards. Both takes would be reviewed in a video playback with a very rough matte; they had equipment to do this immediately on set. The final images were produced with a much more carefully done matte in an optical printer. They look utterly convincing:
Drs. Beverly and Elliot Mantle. I think the matte is just to the left of Clare. Note that this shot isn't in the movie; it's from a lobby card.
- Jeremy Irons was nearly the thirtieth choice for the lead in this; nearly every working American actor turned the part down. I guess they thought playing two crazy, drug addict gynecologists wasn't the best career move. It seems to have worked out well for Mr. Irons, though.
- Cronenberg kept all of Beverly's custom-designed medical tools, except one, which went missing. I think it's probably not the best thing to have those lying around your apartment. I guess if you're hanging out with Cronenberg you kind of expect that, anyway, though. Point is, if you can find the missing one, I'm sure it's worth a bit of money.
- The novel is based on the true story of twin gynecologists who were found dead in their apartment. In real life, they both died from drug withdrawal; the movie's a little more drastic.