Saturday Editor’s Pick: David Cronenberg & Dead Ringers (1988)

by on January 15, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Jan 21 at 7:30 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


MOMI’s hotly anticipated David Cronenberg retrospective kicks off this weekend with an on-stage conversation between the filmmaker and chief curator David Schwartz (2:00sold out; make sure to read about the waiting list and live video feed in the museum’s Bartos Screening Room). The event will be followed by one-off screenings of A History of Violence (at 5:00) and Dead Ringers (at 7:30).

Alt Screen contributor Michael Atkinson for the Village Voice:

The keynote address in what has become—rising out of the neurotic bath of 1970s exploitation films—one of world cinema’s most original and discomfiting visions, this 1988 masterwork by David Cronenberg has aged into a kind of subterranean sacredness. Name another film that takes as many risks, runs its astonishing course with such a steady hand, and has as much to say about brotherhood and corporeal transience. Derived from a true story about a pair of gynecologist twins who committed suicide together, but marinated in Cronenberg’s unique physio-anxiety, the film tracks Jeremy Irons as two dislocated doctors with an avant-garde practice whose warped symbiosis becomes infiltrated by a third party (Geneviève Bujold, as a sensible-minded hophead who has the audacity to like one of the identicals and not the other), and who begin spiraling into a crazed dream world of mutation-phobic dementia, pharmaceutical zombiehood, and body panic. To watch Irons not merely inhabit two characters in the same frame but also manifest the dizzyingly complex dynamic between them—their history, dependencies, fears—is to see the thespian equivalent to splitting the atom. Proportions of wit, fear, weakness, hostility, and kindness vary from brother to brother, never quite adding up to 100 percent, while during the film’s shattering, mordant birthday celebration the differences between the twins become lost in a sleepwalking barbiturate swoon.



Gavin Smith fittingly places the film at the midpoint of Cronenberg’s wide-ranging career, in Film Comment (March/April 1997):

Cronenberg’s 20-year trajectory from morbid yet cerebral no-frills exploitation like Shivers to triumphantly commercial Hollywood horror/sci-fi like The Dead Zone to literary yet visceral art-movie psychodrama like M. Butterfly is a unique and intriguing one, particularly since throughout its evolution his cinema has maintained its thematic and conceptual unity. Aside from his Hawks-out-of-Corman 1979 hot-rod racing flick Fast Company, all of Cronenberg’s films up to The Fly are essentially Pandora’s Box narratives in which scientific research and new technology unleash threats to both the wider social order and the physio- and psychological integrity of his characters. From Dead Ringers on, though, they are all hermetic Through-the-Looking-Glass narratives in which characters descend into their own psyches, triggering ruptures and deviations that are purely projections of the mind. The wider social realm recedes and the focus narrows to the kind of dysfunctional domesticity first explored in The Brood – with a consequent increase in claustrophobia and suspension. Dead Ringers‘ vicariously symbiotic twin gynecologists are the first of a succession of transgressive, codependent marriages involving junkies, transvestites, and bisexual adultery in Naked Lunch, M. Butterflyand Crash.


Alt Screen contributor Nathan Lee, electing it as one of his Top 10 favorite Criterion releases:

The human soul examined by avant-garde gynecology in the saddest movie ever made. Cronenberg leaves the realm of master and steps into the pantheon, bringing Jeremy Irons—flawlessly doubled in one of the all-time great performances—right along with him. Timeless and devastating.


And reiterating his love for favorite director Cronenberg, in an interview with Jen Yamato at Rotten Tomatoes:

This passion for that kind of genre film — sci-fi, horror — led me to David Cronenberg, to movies like Dead Ringers and Videodrome. And Cronenberg was, above anyone else, a figure that merged a kind of genre enthusiasm with a greater sense of a cinema of ideas. Specifically, Videodrome and Dead Ringers were movies that opened up new vistas for me and I’ve been a really passionate devotee of his ever since. If you were to ask me who my favorite director is, I think the one closest to my heart is Cronenberg, who I’ve been watching and re-watching — almost every film every year since I was fifteen. I think he has the most inexhaustible body of work in modern movies.

Nigel Floyd for Time Out (London):

Cronenberg’s emotionally devastating study of the perverse relationship between identical twin gynaecologists, Beverly and Elliot Mantle, is an intense psychological drama which confronts his familiar preoccupations – fear of physical and mental disintegration, mortality, the power struggle between the sexes – without the paradoxical protection of visceral disgust. Instead, the abstract, expressionist imagery synthesises the physical and the mental. Courtesy of clever, unobtrusive trick camerawork, Irons gives a superlative performance as both twins. The delicate symbiotic balance between the brothers is suddenly upset by the eruption into their lives of hedonistic actress Claire (Bujold). As always, they share everything, including Claire, until Beverly realises that he has at last found something he does not want to share, and he is plunged into a whirlpool of emotional confusion; when Elliot tries to help, he too is sucked into the vortex of pain and despair. Likewise, Cronenberg pulls us deeper and deeper into his harrowing tale of separation and loss, the disturbing, cathartic power of which leaves one drained but exhilarated.


Terrence Rafferty for the New Yorker:

Cronenberg’s concentration is extraordinary. Even when nothing seems to be happening, Dead Ringers has a scarily focused intensity that keeps us watching. The script is a model of construction, a complex and perfectly balances instrument of unease. Everything works with everything else, and everything penetrates until it hurts. The movie is beautifully thought out in visual terms, too. The medical scenes are dimly lit, the surgeons wear blood-red gowns, and we can never quite make out what’s going on. But the twins’ apartment – their womb – is garishly bright, starkly furnished; there we see every detail, as if we were looking through one of those uncomfortable optical devices that doctors use when they want to see deep inside us. As always, Cronenberg’s wok gleams with intelligence, and goes as far as it can go. Cronenberg hits our sensitive spots with a disturbingly practiced touch. This movie about narcissism keeps turning further and further inward – the twins’ story is one of helpless regression – and it makes us do the same. Bu the time it’s over, we feel as if we, too, were huddled in a mirror world, hemmed in by images of our fears and inadequacies, and sensing our vulnerability to everything outside the smooth circle of reflection. Cronenberg stirs up emotions that are so threatening, so overpowering, that we can respond only by withdrawing – by alienating ourselves in any way we can. He shines a bright, cold light on inoperable terrors inside and and then leaves us starting with blurred incomprehension, at the instruments in his clinic’s pristine cabinets.



Dave Kehr for the Chicago Tribune:

Though Cronenberg has always made intensely personal, even obsessive films, he has now acquired the fluency of style, the deep sense of character and the rhetorical distance necessary to transform his obsessions into art. The Canadian has become one of the best filmmakers on this planet. Dead Ringers takes Cronenberg a step further. An astonishing, magnetic, devastating piece of work, it’s Cronenberg`s Scenes from a Marriage, and there are many moments in it, both cinematic and emotional, that are far more gripping than the earlier Ingmar Bergman film.
Dead Ringers is a departure for Cronenberg in that it no longer relies on bursting special effects and extravagant fantasy. The director has distanced himself from his material, adopting an external point of view. The horror may be indirect, but it is also more intense. The film offers no cathartic release for the audience-no opportunity to scream or jump-but rather a constant mounting of strangeness and tension. On the surface, Dead Ringers is smooth and placid, a series of cool, immaculate images, an even, unhurried narrative line. Inside, it seethes.
The brothers` descent is terrifying, but it is Cronenberg`s peculiar genius-here, as in The Fly-to also find something majestic in it. It is by going too far, in their aspirations or emotions, that Cronenberg`s characters fulfill themselves, a fulfillment that lies in a terrible, awesome self-immolation. In its own way, Dead Ringers is the most romantic film of the year. Inseparable, complete in themselves, the Mantles must either destroy the world or leave it.


Chris Rodley for the Criterion Collection:

“When was the last time a gynecologist was in a movie, even as a figure of fun? There’s something taboo there; something strange and difficult.” True to Cronenberg’s assertion, Dead Ringers is both wholly original and uniquely disturbing. It dares the very taste buds of cinema with concerns so far beyond the polite, and so far beneath the easy shock, it could have been made by an alien: a being with a healthy disregard for the normal operations of commercial cinema, but with a unique sense of the human condition.

The movie is relentlessly interior in its depiction of personal chaos. We are allowed only two glimpses of the exterior world, in the first and penultimate scenes. Carol Spier’s brilliant production design keeps us locked in a strange, alien mindset purposefully reminiscent of an aquarium. Elliot and Beverly, far from being demystified, are viewed as exotic creatures by virtue of a cruel twist of biological fate. As Cronenberg has observed: “Dead Ringers is conceptual science fiction, the concept being: ‘What if there could be identical twins?’ I’m suggesting that’s impossible. I can imagine a world in which they are only a concept, like mermaids.”

Ambitious motion-control camerawork, allowing the seamless “twinning” of Irons, is both staggering and kept firmly in its place. Mere technology is never allowed to distract an audience from the film’s ultimate subject. This has little to do with twins or gynecology. Dead Ringers is a definitively melancholic meditation on our very existence—on the sadness of what Cronenberg has termed “unrequited life.” If the movie seems tantalizingly, even dangerously, personal, it is because it delivers its maker’s sensibility and aesthetic so directly and artfully. Its troubling existence is as cathartic as it is exhilarating.



Contact Music, via the Hollywood Reporter, reveals an interesting casting tidbit:

“It was a tough sell. I literally went to 30 of the best American and Canadian actors… and they all said no.”


“William Hurt said it would literally drive him over the edge of madness. You’d think playing twins would be a no-brainer, but they were based on real people… and that is hard to play.”

New York Magazine’s Vulture reveals an unlikely fangirl in Charlize Theron:

You also addressed David Cronenberg from stage and said you watched Dead Ringers a million times. That’s a weird movie to love. What about it made you obsessed?
I just, I had a massive crush on Jeremy Irons, and when I met my gynecologist, I was like, “Wait a second. You’re not Jeremy Irons. You don’t look like Jeremy Irons at all!”
That’s pretty creepy. That’s really weird.
I love that movie! I love that movie! I LOOOOVE that movie! I was obsessed with that movie for a while. I remember when the first DVD players came out with the big round things.
Laser discs?
Laser discs! I had that on laser disc and I studied that for a while.
You and Patton Oswald were arguing onstage over which one of you had seen Dead Ringers more times […] Have you met Jeremy Irons?
No, I haven’t, and now he probably won’t want to meet me after he’s heard how obsessed I was.


Ed Howard for his blog Only the Cinema:

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.

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.



Walter Chaw for Film Freak Central:

With Dead Ringers, Cronenberg fashions a single entity from two wholes–a continuation in spirit of The Fly, exploring an idea of imposed order (with its blue-lit examination theatres, sterile red gowns, and polished penthouse surfaces) sabotaged by the ever-present spectre of sexual jealousy and addiction. Insects make a return in Dead Ringers in the form of a specially-commissioned set of surgical steel gynaecological instruments (leading to a medical examination as discomfiting as anything in the director’s oeuvre), illustrating Cronenberg’s juxtaposition of the unassailably human with the indisputably inhuman. Described in two ways in the film–as tools for operating on “women with mutant biologies” and as “tools for the separation of Siamese twins”–the Mantles’ steel insect (and crustacean) parts are canny representations of the concerns of the picture and, ultimately, of the director’s keystone concerns. Jeremy Irons as both halves of the suggestively named Mantle twins (“mantle” being both a cloak of authority and a crustacean’s protective covering) is simply astounding: by the middle of the film, the illusion of duality is seamless, as is, by the end, the somehow more difficult illusion of cohesion. The star of the picture, however, is cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (in his first collaboration with the director, a partnership that has lasted to this day) and his cold colour schemes and smooth movements–the kind of detached remove that fits perfectly with Cronenberg’s sensibilities. With the addition of Suschitzky’s architectural compositions, Cronenberg, with Dead Ringers, becomes the director that Roman Polanski could have been. There is an apocryphal tale concerning conjoined twins Chang & Eng retold in the film: Chang, the weaker of the two, has a stroke in the night and perishes. When Eng awakes to find his brother dead, he dies of fright. The implications of the tale and the ways with which Cronenberg winnows its essence down to a story of a sensitive dependency made fatal by the dreams of the flesh is the very definition of “auteurism”–and the Cronenberg film.



Then Film Freak Central talks to Cronenberg:

I think to this point, Dead Ringers is your most accomplished film technically and emotionally. It is also your first collaboration with DP Peter Suschitzky–why the change from Mark Irwin?
Mark, for various reasons, couldn’t shoot the picture: he’d had upheavals in his life, had moved from Toronto to L.A. or Santa Barbara, and he was in the middle of doing a bunch of stuff and then the movie itself was delayed and I didn’t know when the movie was ever going to happen again. So I had to start looking for another cinematographer and I found Peter. I read about him in a book–do you know that series? It’s a series of books on film. There was one on Joseph Losey, one on Godard, and one called It Happened Here about Kevin Brownlow and his consultant Andrew Mollo and the making of his movie It Happened Here. How he, as a kid, shot this movie with short ends of film that Stanley Kubrick, who was shooting Strangelove, gave them. It’s a very ambitious film made by two very young, inexperienced guys about what if Germany had won the war and England was occupied by Nazis and they made this movie and Peter shot it–or most of it. He had been this young man shooting stills–his father, Wolfgang, was a cinematographer and still shooting well into his eighties. Then I noticed that Peter had also shot The Empire Strikes Back, which was the only one of those movies that actually looked good and it looked really good. I forget exactly how we hooked up, but I remember our first meeting in England and I met Peter and we just totally fell in love and that was the beginning of this collaboration that has gone on.
With the casting of Jeremy Irons, it raises the question for me of what you perceive to be the Cronenberg protagonist.
Well, I don’t. (laughs) I don’t think in those terms. Like I mentioned in our talk at Telluride, you have to realize that you have to separate your process from mine because I’m not analytical in that way–I don’t look at a character and say, “Well, is this a Cronenberg protagonist?” That never happens. Dead Ringers, I remember seeing in a newspaper, a headline saying “Twin Docs Found Dead in Posh Pad,” and I thought, What is that? And it was about twin gynecologists found dead in their apartment and as I delved more into it, and of course there was a novel written about it, an article called “Dead Ringers” written by Laura Rosenbaum in Esquire I think it was. It became a very famous story and I knew that someone would make a story about this so it wasn’t so much the protagonist that attracted me, but that I just knew that there was a great movie in there that I would have to make because it didn’t seem like anyone else was interested in doing it.



Scott Tobias for the Onion AV Club:

Dead Ringers is, to be sure, a relentlessly chilling, grotesque, and unmistakably Cronenbergian exercise in psychological horror, but “the Mantle brothers’ saga,” as Elliot calls it, is a tragic one at its core. In spite of Cronenberg’s distancing technique, the film is about men who fundamentally cannot and could never comprehend what it means to be human, no matter how thoroughly they’ve plumbed the inner workings of the body. The other side of their hyper-rationality is their failure to understand when rationality breaks down and emotion takes over, not least when it happens to them. Cronenberg plays this schism for laughs much of the time—Beverly’s read on Claire’s clearly gay assistant, for one, is hilariously off base, yet it sends him on a downward spiral from which he never recovers—but Dead Ringers pities the Mantles, too, for having such a narrow understanding of who they are. Ironically, it’s in death that they finally become human beings, with all the accompanying frailty, uncertainty, and tenderness.


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