Thursday, April 21, 2005

#21: Dead Ringers

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

          That's funny.

          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.


Rog said...

I recently watched this as well and totally dug it. The psychological interplay between the two "twins" was awesome. Despited looking virtually identical (you can tell them apart by hair though for most of the movie, as Bev wears his hanging over his forehead more and Elliott has his usually gelled and combed back), they have that whole extroversion/introversion dichotomy going on and the sharing of women/experiences etc. Man, so awesome, Cronenberg's a nut. I love it.

Matthew Dessem said...

Yeah, it's a great one. If you like Cronenberg, here's a top-secret heads up--I saw his new one a few months ago and it's really good--no "Dead Ringers," but fun and well made; it's called "A History of Violence." It'll be in theaters in September after screening in competition at Cannes in a few weeks. It has a good Howard Shore score, too, kind of a Bernard Herrmann thing. And it's one of ours!

Anonymous said...

I think that you have written an interesting review, but you have possibly missed a good amount in this brilliant film. It's possible that this requires multiple viewings for some though, and I would recommend you do so. There is much more to the relationship with the twins to each other, to Claire, and to the audience than simply being disassociated and unsympathetic. I actually find the twins to be very sympathetic, as they are so lulled into this cold world that many were in the 80's that they couldn't pull themselves out of it even with the help of Claire. Maybe you should rewatch and focus more on the film than the special effects that you learned about on the DVD.

Matthew Dessem said...

Matt, thanks for the feedback. I don't intend this post to be a definitive review, just my impressions immediately after viewing. I also find the twins sympathetic but I think their disassociation has more to do with internal flaws than with the 80s per se--remember, they're pretty out of it even in the opening flashbacks. The opening scene where they're 9 or 10 or so is the key here; there's the exchange where one of them (Beverly?) talks about how nice it would be if people lived under water because "they'd have a *kind* of sex, but the kind where you wouldn't have to touch each other"; and Elliot responds "I like that idea"--they're already longing for the womb, so to speak. Also, I think that Claire is the cause of their eventual downfall, not a "best last chance" at escape; if she hadn't entered the equation, I think they would have continued much as before.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your sense of sadness after viewing this film. This is one of the most devestating films ever made; it is a deeply, profoundly disturbing exploration of sorrow.

I recall seeing it when it first came out. I was a huge Cronenberg fan, primarily for the cerebral impact of Videodrome and Scanners. I was NOT expecting to be so distressed emotionally, however. (I was not alone. A woman actually ran from the theater during the scene in which Beverly uses the surgical retractor on his patient.)

Nonetheless, I went back to see it again and again, mesmerized by its power. Howard Shore's music has never been more affecting.

Matthew Dessem said...


Yes, both the film and the score are heartbreaking. It would have been very interesting to see this in a theater when it first came out.

Anonymous said...

“Pain distorts character.” This line from Dead Ringers is as good a summary as any of what is going on here. This is an easy film to admire, a hard one to watch. As noted, there is an overall melancholy that never lets up. The twins’ only escape is death. Clare, as far as we know, never finds relief.

But on to what I admire: David Cronenberg states on the commentary track that a director has “to find physical representations of inner frames of mind.” Dead Ringers is a superb example of how meaningful production design can be. Meticulous costume and set design, lighting choices, color palette, and shot structure contribute as much to characterization as Jeremy Irons’ extraordinarily skillful double performance.

The cool color palette and sterile Italian furnishings in the twins’ living space contrasts sharply with the warm hues and softly upholstered look of Clare’s apartment. I especially like the splashes of blood red that pepper the film. The twins’ environment not only becomes increasingly unkempt, but the spaces they interact in become smaller, more claustrophobic, and the cinematographer frames them more tightly as the film progresses.

For an interior film, the views through the windows are intricate and interesting, a constant reminder of just how much the twins miss out on in their insular relationship. Reflective surfaces abound, an obvious commentary on twinning. Cronenberg says he wanted to avoid the good twin, bad twin dichotomy so prevalent in any exploration of twins. While other dichotomies are explored (male/femaleness, introversion/extroversion, etc), I believe there are clearly a good twin and a bad twin here.

Matthew Dessem said...

Indian Surgical Industries, your spam comment charmed the shit out of me. If only you knew how many people end up on this page after doing image searches for "Gynecological Tools for Operating on Mutant Women." If you guys do custom work, you're going to be in business. Very disturbing business.

Timothy Liebe said...

DEAD RINGERS is one of those "See Once" Cronenbergs for me - it was too devastating for me to want to re-watch it (unlike Cronenberg's early "smart horror" films like RABID, THE BROOD or SCANNERS - or how brilliantly EXISTENZ screwed with your perceptions). OTOH, your review and the comments thread have made me reconsider - does Criterion still sell DEAD RINGERS...?

Anonymous said...

Soundtrack music from Dead Ringers was released on CD in 1992, along with music from Scanners and The Brood -- the disc was called "Music of Howard Shore", on the Silva Screen label (catalog # FILMCD 115). It's well worth seeking out.

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