Movie Discussion: David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988)

  • Monthly Theme: Erotic Thrillers
  • The Film: Dead Ringers
  • Alternate titles: n/a
  • Country of origin: Canada
  • Date of Canadian release: September 8, 1988
  • Date of U.S. release: September 23, 1988
  • Studios: Morgan Creek Productions & Téléfilm Canada
  • Distributer: Twentieth Century Fox
  • Domestic Gross: $8 million
  • Budget: $13 million
  • Director: David Cronenberg
  • Producers: Carol Baum & Sylvio Tabet
  • Screenwriters: David Cronenberg & Norman Snider
  • Adaptation? Yes, of the 1977 novel Twins by Jack Geasland & Bari Wood, which was inspired by real-life twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus.
  • Cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky
  • Make-Up/FX: Gordon Smith
  • Music: Howard Shore
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No, though Peter Greenaway’s 1985 film A Zed & Two Noughts was also loosely based on the lives of the Marcus twins.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Geneviève Bujold has been in many horror/thrillers (Obsession, Coma, etc.)
  • Other notables?: Yes. Beloved actor Jeremy Irons. TV star Jill Hennessy.
  • Awards?: C.S.T. Award & Grand Prize at the 1989 Avioraz Fantastic Film Festival. Best Actor [Irons] at the 1989 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, the 1989 Fantasporto and the 1988 New York Film Critics Circle Awards. 11 awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor [Irons], Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography at the 1989 Genie Awards. Best Director at the 1989 Golden Horse Film Festival and the 1988 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards.
  • Tagline: “Two bodies. Two minds. One soul. Separation can be a terrifying thing.”
  • The Lowdown: Cronenberg’s film concerns Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons in twin roles), esteemed specialists in women’s fertility who are nearly impossible to tell apart. Beverly, the shy twin, is also the more talented surgeon. The two have a habit of sharing women without the women being aware – the more gregarious and confident Elliot will seduce them and then at their next meeting Beverly will show up pretending to be Elliot for a repeat performance. The Mantle twins take on a new patient, a pill-popping actress named Claire (Geneviève Bujold) with an unusual medical anomaly: a trifurcated uterus that makes bearing children impossible. As the twins become sexually involved with Claire, Beverly finds himself disintegrating into drug addiction and paranoid fantasies about mutant women.

If you haven’t seen Dead Ringers our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Kristine: I loved this movie.

Sean: I thought maybe you hated it.

Kristine: No, I loved it. But I have questions for you.

Sean: Shoot.

Kristine: Oh, and also one piece of gossip. Did you know there is a rumor that Rob Pattinwhatever has been cheating on Kristen Stewart with a bevy of Hollywood types all along, including David Cronenberg’s daughter?

Sean: Well he just shot Cosmopolis with Cronenberg…

Kristine: My real question is this: I have read that Cronenberg is thought to be this really cold, clinical filmmaker, since he is all interested in the mechanisms of the body and technology, blah blah blah. But both of his movies that we have watched (this movie and The Fly) were teeming with melodrama and emotion and did not seem cold or remote to me at all. So what are people talking about?

Project Runway: Sadistic Surgeon Challenge

Sean: Hmmm. You’re right that he is a totally melodramatic director.

Kristine: Teeming.

Sean: But I think that they’re talking about how his characters are unusually uptight and that their misbehaviors are eking out from under pounds of repression. Also, Cronenberg just tends to shoot things at a remove and the surfaces of his films are all sleek and remote.

Kristine: Huh.

Sean: I mean, like that sex scene with Claire all tied up with sterilized surgical gloves, bathed in blue light. Or the camera gliding over the glistening, cold surfaces of their offices and operating theaters and whatnot.

Kristine: Right… but at the end when all hell breaks loose, in both movies, the main characters are living in these feral nests covered in gore and crumpled Kleenexes.

Sean: Haha!

Kristine: I’m just saying I think the news of David Cronenberg’s sterility and glacial remoteness has been vastly overstated. From my experience, Cronenbergian does not mean “icebergian.”

Sean: Touché. You’re right that if Cronenberg is interested in repressed, cerebral characters, it is often only to watch the eventual spectacle of them breaking down and letting loose. I love the over-the-top melodrama in his movies, with Jeremy Irons stumbling drunkenly around or Jeff Goldblum vomiting on everybody.

Kristine: I mentioned this to you on the phone but it must be said again and again and again – I cannot believe how Nip/Tuck is just a total rip-off of this movie.

Sean: It totally is.

Kristine: Christian/Sean from Nip/Tuck are totally Elliot and Beverly Mantle.

Sean: That is ridiculous. I never realized the similarities before, but you are dead on. The entire blueprint of that show’s main relationship between the two doctors is lifted straight out of Cronenberg.

Kristine: Ryan Murphy should be paying Cronenberg royalties for the whole dynamic of symbiotic brothers (figurative on Nip/Tuck, literal in Dead Ringers), one of whom is sexually aggressive and confident, one of whom is more skilled in the operating room but a nebbish outside of it. I liked when Claire, in Dead Ringers, was taunting Beverly about having a woman’s name and being the submissive twin. Cronenberg really makes the whole gender dynamic of the brother relationship much more explicit (the feminine name is a great, though totally over-the-top and melodramatic, way to clarify who is less assertive and more emotionally raw). What do you make of that whole thing?

Crossing Whore-dom

Sean: I loved the dynamic between the brothers, part of which is the genderfuck like you’re pointing out. It’s also great how Beverly, the “effeminate” twin, is the one who is obsessed with Claire’s trifurcated uterus and generally just grossed out and fascinated by the female body. On the flip side of that, Elliot is much less alienated by female bodies but also sees them as commodities and objects. That duality is interesting, and how the brothers are both two sides of a very misogynistic coin. I like to think about how this movie is an extremely clever riff on the classic Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde story, but interested in male camaraderie and brotherhood instead of just being a psychoanalytic metaphor about one character. This story is more explicitly about class and gender than the Robert Louis Stevenson novella. I mean, Elliot and Beverly are both such fops, and it is highly entertaining. I love them being all metrosexual and demented.

Kristine: This movie made me love Jeremy Irons for the first time ever. I so loved the high-glamour 1980s power restaurant the twins frequented.

Sean: That dinner confrontation between Claire and the twins is amazing.

Kristine: I also loved their dinners at home. You know, like their wine glasses that cost $2,000 each.

Sean: Yes, there’s a lot of rigorous attention to detail in how the scenes are staged. The settings – their apartment, their offices, Claire’s apartment, etc. – are all cold but ornate in a similar way. The movie’s backdrops feel like a part of the overall tone.

Kristine: The mise-en-scène was superb. And with that statement I just transformed into an old theatre queen.

Sean: I love how the movie employs the body horror elements. The dream where Claire chews off the umbilical-like tissue connecting Elliot and Beverly together? Like we implied above, the movie is not subtle, but that’s what gives it all its energy.

Kristine: Cronenberg seems to like his shocking dream sequences, like Geena Davis dreaming she gives birth to a maggot in The Fly. But unlike The Fly, this movie doesn’t have a gonzo, splatter-soaked conclusion. I was shocked by how the movie doesn’t really end it just kind of… trails off…

Sean: Yes, Claire just kind of vanishes and then there’s all this stuff about the twins in the apartment dying. I think Claire’s final appearance in the movie is just as a disembodied voice. The movie has some interesting gender stuff going on, but I still worry that it’s a bit sexist. I am interested in how the brothers are total date rapists at the start of the movie and there’s this implicit critique of brotherhood and fraternity leading to the objectification of women.

Kristine: But they don’t see it that way, to them it is boyish fun. Then we see later that it isn’t just boyish fun, when Elliot says, “You haven’t fucked her unless I fucked her first.”

Cable-knit three-way

Sean: Yes, Elliot’s cruel side only comes out once Beverly starts trying to stray from their “arrangement.” When Bev meets Claire, he no longer wants to be a rapist and that triggers his downward spiral. So in some ways, I feel like this movie is abut the male psyche and how trapped men can be in a “rape culture” mentality.

Kristine: I agree with you that the movie is about fraternity, and about how men are socialized to view and treat women. That’s why I don’t think calling the movie sexist is quite right. It’s about sexism, but I’m not sure it is actually invested in those attitudes. The way the Mantles treat women is given the appropriately creepy tone. No one can argue that the film thinks what the twins are doing is fine and not totally fucked up.

Sean: That makes sense. Claire is often tasked with being the audience proxy. She speaks our horror at their monstrosity. What’s crazy is that as Bev’s repulsion with his brother grows, so does his repulsion with the female body.

Kristine: Bev’s repulsion with the female body is completely fear-based. And he is afraid because his shared experience of Claire with Elliot, for the first time, doesn’t bring him pleasure or peace. Instead, he feels jealous and possessive of Claire and her body. Claire’s vagina is quite literally the first thing in his life he doesn’t want to share with Elliot. So it is “natural” that he is experiencing her body like it is alien, that he begins to look at all women as a set of mutations. When his symbiotic relationship with Elliot is threatened, Bev loses his filter. The very thing that is driving a wedge between himself and his brother – Claire’s body [and thus, all women’s bodies] – begins to take on monstrous qualities.

Sean: Great point, though I would add that Claire literally is a mutant. She’s a “trifurcate,” as the Mantles say.

Kristine: God. This movie.

Sean: She is an unusual “specimen,” a medical mystery, which I think is both partly the reason why it is Claire who triggers Bev’s possessiveness and also serves as the catalyst for his paranoid delusions about mutant female bodies. He was the twin who was obsessed with his work and the actual science of the business. One gets the feeling that Elliot is more into the business for all the pussy it scores for him, while Bev is actually obsessed with biology. So of course Bev would become obsessed with Claire’s “strange” body. Three compartments! “Can I grow three separate babies in each one?” she asks. I love Claire’s dry wit and sense of the absurd. Claire sort of rocks, despite her hideous hair and clothes.

Kristine: Do you remember at the very start of the movie, when young (and ugly) Beverly and Elliot are “operating” on the Visible Woman doll? Who is (foreshadowing!) tied down with surgical tubing?

Sean: Totally.

Kristine: That was the first woman they shared… Their understanding of the female body is as primarily medical and scientific. I mean, isn’t that part of the horror this movie is trying to explore? The horror of a pair of doctors that cease to see their patients as people or subjects, and see them only as objects, test subjects?

Sean: That foul-mouthed little girl at the start…

Kristine: “You don’t know what fuck means! I know for a fact!” Ha! They are emasculated by that little girl.

Spreadeagled on the chaise lounge is yuppie for “let’s fuck”

Sean: What did you make of Claire?

Kristine: I mean, she’s okay… I don’t know. I know she is our proxy but I have to say, I was really offended by how her whole raison d’être to just to give birth. Remember she says, “If I don’t have a baby I’ll never be a woman, I’ll always be a girl”? I am offended by that sentiment.

Sean: Hahahaha! I forgot about that line.

Kristine: I did love her coming correct to the twins but she also did some squirrely shit. I thought it was really weird when she finds out it was Bev (duh!) who made that creepy phone call to her assistant and told him all about the state of her uterus, after she made him swear to “not tell.”  And she was just like, “Oh, that was you? You grossed him out! Come on over, I want to see you.” That is weird. She is weird.

Sean: Her queeny assistant was ridiculous.

Kristine: And her excitement when she came back and realized Bev was hooked on drugs? When he is writing out that prescription Claire is like, having an orgasm.

Sean: She is similar to Marina from Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in some ways.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: I would like to respond to you being offended at Claire’s line about giving birth.

Kristine: Okay, but I cannot go a moment longer without addressing the blood red nun scrubs worn during the operation sequences. And now please respond. Sorry.

Sean: I actually think the whole movie sets up procreation (and what’s more, scientific alteration of the body in order to procreate) as “horrific.” I think that Bev and Elliot’s whole lifestyle and profession is meant to be viewed with suspicion by the audience. The movie, I think, sort of mocks the women who come to the clinic to get fertility treatments (this is one of the sexist vibes the movie gives off to me). I think Claire’s line is not meant to be evoke sympathy. She means what she says, but we are supposed to wrestle with the meaning and politics of bodies and procreation. Her own sense of alienation from her body has very little to do with procreation, actually…

Kristine: I agree. Also, Claire is clearly way too fucked up to be a parent to anyone or to sustain a pregnancy.

Sean: She’s a drug addict and a compulsive “game player.”

Kristine: Exactly.

Sean: I mean, the most sympathetic woman in the movie, for me, is the older women who gets the golden surgical retractor shoved up her nani. But even she is being mocked. She’s clearly past the age of “natural” child birth.

Kristine: Oh yeah, she won’t stand up to the doctor because she is so desperate.

Sean: I think we’re meant to see her as someone whose quest to conceive is… unwise and impractical. The whole idea of using science to “twist” nature into new shapes is viewed at best with suspicion and, at worst, with outright disgust.

Kristine: What do you think about science giving the “gift of life” to those who have problems naturally conceiving? Are we all a bunch of Frankensteins?

I love it when you keep your old lady nightie on during sex, Claire…

Sean: Having a baby in this move is like, a weird gross distortion of the body.

Kristine: Umm, having a baby in real life is like that, too.

Sean: Well, but here’s where I’m not sure what Claire’s unusual body is supposed to signify. It is a mutation and a curiosity that Bev finds erotic. Her vagina/uterus is purely ornamental, not “functional” if the goal is to have babies. I don’t know, Cronenberg seems like a director who is both intensely pro-sex, but also weirdly revolted by bodies. But I think he’s making fun of the very idea that the “job” of a woman’s body is to give birth. I think the movie doesn’t empathize with Claire when she gives voice to that idea, even though we understand her feelings. The movie is in many ways a critique of the whole idea of pregnancy and its relationship to sexuality.

Kristine: I know a young woman who is pregnant and she is undergoing gesticular diabetes, growing hair all over her body,…

Sean: Woah. Claire views her inability to conceive as monstrous, and despairs over it. The twins view it as magical, and want to study her and publish articles about her body. Her trifurcated uterus is “beautiful” in some ways, “monstrous” in others.

Kristine: Do you remember when Bev is in despairing, thinking Claire is cheating on him with her queeny assistant and Elliot says, “She’s a showbiz lady! What can you expect?” A showbiz lady! The twins are from another era when science reigned supreme and all cultured men were fops.

Sean: Ha! I love Elliot, he’s such a bitch. I think that actually ties into that weird futuristic but also kind-of-Victorian operating theater, with the red Spanish Inquisition robes…

Kristine: Agreed. And, of course, “the instruments.”

Sean: Was the sex in this movie hot?

Kristine: It was not. An aside- there are Civil War surgical instruments in the cubicle next to mine at work and they are… They make me pale.

Sean: The gynecological instruments for the examination of mutant women are my favorite thing in this movie. I want to know if you think Jeremy Irons was sexy in this movie.

Kristine: No, Irons was not sexy but he was fucking great and really went for it. The end scenes when he is wearing a blazer (last stab at gentility) over his shirtless chest and is stumbling about his nest? Great. And when he was stumbling through the streets puking? Great. I guess he did a lot of stumbling in this movie. So, do you know this is based on a true story? I think I sent you the link, did you read it? I am fascinated.

Sean: It was very long, but I looked it over.

Kristine: Hmmm.

Sean: I mean I knew about the real life connection. Is the whole notion of a male gynecologist just a problem?

Kristine: I can think of two other movies right off the bat where a male gynecologist is a sick twisted fuck: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Your Friends and Neighbors.

Sean: I am fascinated that we need to view the “male gynecologist” with suspicion and have to create all kind of rationalizations for why he exists. That all these movies are like, wagging their finger in the faces of male gynecologists the world over.

In their version of Operation, if you hit the side you get a gold-plated surgical retractor up your yoo-hoo

Kristine: Personally? I have had an equal number of female and male gynos and don’t have a preference. And I have had more gynecologists then most because I move a lot.

Sean: Have you ever had a surgical retractor in your va-j?

Kristine: I will say that going to the gynecologist is a humiliating experience, and I am a person with relatively few body/sexual issues.

Sean: As the owner of a vagina, were the gnarly examination scenes particularly gruesome for you to watch?

Kristine: I was more like, “Yep, that’s what’s it’s like!”

Sean: I was clutching my stomach, writhing.

Kristine: Including the doctor being impatient and imperial.

Sean: Imperial!

Kristine: All, “Umm, this would go a lot faster for all of us if you could just relax your va-j while I stick it in!” That is real.

Sean: Ugh. Sounds like a nightmare.

Kristine: It is a nightmare, actually.

Sean: Can we discuss the mutant instruments?

Kristine: Did you find them to be beautiful works of art?

Sean: So just fyi, the artist who makes those instruments in the movie is played by the star of Scanners, an early Cronenberg film.

Kristine: Huh.

Sean: I did find them beautiful and fascinating. My favorite scene is when the nurse unrolls the satchel of instruments and is horrified and he’s like, “Hand me that!” and she just obeys because of patriarchy.

Kristine: That was great. I think Cronenberg is tapping into something very real there about the power of authoritarian figures, like doctors, and also the assumption that when science and technology don’t work it is because of human error. Like Bev says, “There’s nothing the matter with the instruments, it’s the body [that is at fault].” Modern medicine expects the body to conform to it, not vice versa.

Is there such a thing as identical twin porn? And if so can you send us the link?

Sean: Oh god yes – the whole idea of “doctor as god” is being held up to scrutiny in this movie. But when Bev says that about the body being the problem, I think that’s meant to be a signature moment where we see the mind of the “doctor” as twisted and out of touch.

Kristine: Remember when the desperate woman says, “It’s so hard to find a doctor you can trust.” Why do Bev and Elliot only work on women? “No husbands,” remember?

Sean: He is revolted by the idea of “treating” a man. It is gay panic, M.D.!

Kristine: But why? Do men not need to be “fixed”? Why don’t they mess with the male body? Even in their childhood their interest was with the Visible Woman, not the Visible Man.

Sean: Because women have more orifices and all these mysterious interior spaces, duh. But really, it makes sense that in a culture that already objectifies women the Mantle twins would find it relatively easy to just transfer that objectification into medical fetishization. The female body as sexual object becomes the female body as scientific specimen/spectacle.

Kristine: If your boyfriend was a surgeon, would you be afraid that you would wake up and you would be tied down with surgical tubing and he would be…operating?

Sean: Haven’t you ever woken up with your boyfriend’s tool in your body before? Probing?

Kristine: Aaaah!

Sean: We haven’t talked about Claire’s outfits. And how she is not quite the… traditional beauty.

Kristine: Let’s not and say we did.

Sean: I am shocked. I thought we were going to dish and make Björk jokes.

Kristine: Little things, like the giant monster-sized medicine cabinet in the twins’ apartment really made this movie for me. And I found their plight incredibly moving. This movie just did it for me.

Sean: Did this movie make drugs seem glamorous or gross?

Kristine: Drugs did not seem like a good time in this movie.

Sean: Yeah agreed.

Kristine: Remember Bev lurching across his bleeding patient for a hit off the whatever machine? That scene was also ripped off wholesale by Nip/Tuck, by the way.

Sean: The total degradation of Bev was amazing. When he shouts, “I toil over the hot snatches!” during the awards ceremony?

Kristine: Oh! That line! My favorite!!!!!! “I do everything but stick it in!”

Sean: Kristine, can you warm a muffin in a hot snatch?

Kristine: Well, natch.

Sean: Ha!

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Masterpiece!

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!