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Dead Ringers

(Faux-semblants, Twins)

Year: 1988
Language: English
Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 113 min
Director: David Cronenberg
Producer: Marc Boyman, David Cronenberg
Writer: Norman Snider, David Cronenberg
Cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky
Editor: Ronald Sanders
Sound: Bryan Day, Don White, Andy Nelson
Music: Howard Shore
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Susan Markle, Richard Farrell, David Hughes, Miriam Newhouse, Damir Andrei, Lynn Cormack, Nick Nichols, Stephen Lack, Shirley Douglas, Barbara Gordon, Nicholas Haley, Jonathan Haley, Heidi Von Palleske, Geneviève Bujold

Cronenberg and screenwriter Norman Snider turned to the horror of psychic reality rather than sci-fi fantasy, drawing on the sensational bestseller Twins by Bari Woods for inspiration. Twins is the account of real-life twin doctors Steven and Cyril Marcus, who were found dead in their Upper East Side apartment, having committed suicide with an overdose of barbiturates.

Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Irons) are twin gynecologists whose medical talents have brought them great success. From the beginning, the twins become a metaphor for the duality of mind and body, the compartmentalizing of physicians’ professional and personal lives and people’s shared and separate identities. Elliot dominates the twins’ relationship; he is the one who handles their public profile, always the confident professional — and the seducer of women. The more reserved Beverly sees patients, researches — and occasionally sleeps with the women his brother casts off. “You know, you never experience anything until I do,” Elliott declares.

The twins’ comfortable structured co-existence is gradually altered and ultimately destroyed after they meet Claire (Bujold), a famous actress seeking treatment for infertility at their clinic. Elliot, pretending to be Beverly, seduces her in the examining room. Elliot treats her as just another casual conquest but when Beverly begins an affair with her, he is much more disturbed by their relationship and his growing feelings. Claire leaves when she discovers their deception, which leads to a crisis and a rapid downhill spiral for the brothers, as Beverly then Elliot begin using drugs.

Dead Ringers is a comparatively subtle film for Cronenberg, yet there remain some particularly sinister and disturbing details, elements like the blood-red surgical wear and the custom-sculpted gynecological instruments. Laid out in readiness for surgery, they are truly the stuff of nightmares. They are never more menacing than in the hands of Beverly once his drug use has escalated out of control and he suffers a breakdown. In a desperate attempt to separate himself from his brother and their unbearable symbiosis, Beverly “operates” on Elliot, mutilating and killing him in the process. When he finds himself unable to reach out to the woman he loves, he returns to Elliot’s side. The film closes on the two twins lying dead in each other’s arms.

David Cronenberg’s craft and skill are never more evident than in Dead Ringers, which many critics have called his masterpiece. Jeremy Irons’ performances are exceptional, aided by the adroit cinematography of Peter Suschitzky.

Dead Ringers never relents with the power of its story and the sheer visual authority it brings into play. Above all, it is emotionally complex and probing, examining the deeper recesses of the human mind.