After a wryly funny credits sequence featuring engravings of forceps through the ages, the film begins with a scene in which the 12-year-old twin brothers emerge from a twin house - a visual pun typical of Cronenberg. They are already acutely aware that a sensation experienced by one is shared by the other. When the film flash-forwards to their college years it becomes clear that though they share a common central nervous system - like Siamese twins, but detached - they neither look nor behave identically.
Beverly is the nerdy, tweedy one, an introverted scholar and clinician whose hair always falls in his eyes. Cashmered Elliot is the social one, an extrovert who attracts research funds and clients to the Mantle Clinic and women to the Mantle bed where, even after a night of vigorous lovemaking, his oilslick coif has not a hair out of place. What's staggering about Irons' performance is that he creates two characters so distinct that you can even tell when one twin is impersonating the other.
The Mantles share everything - including the women Elliot procures - until actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) walks into their clinic. Elliot enjoys a sadomasochistic dalliance with her, but the tender Beverly wants Claire to himself. (Beverly's the kind of gyno who says, "I've always thought there should be beauty contests for the inside of bodies.")
At first she thinks that Beverly is a little schizophrenic; only later does she realize that she's being romanced by twins pretending to be the same person and confronts them. "You sweeten 'em up with all that smarmy concern," she indicts Beverly before turning to his brother to deliver the verdict on Elliot: "And then along comes Dracula to finish 'em off!"
Before Claire, nothing has ever come between the brothers. The central conflict of Dead Ringers is that Beverly has come to love someone more than his brother, which both men find threatens the delicate ecology of their relationship. The closer he gets to Claire, the more Beverly is plagued by nightmares in which he imagines he and Elliot as Siamese twins joined at the hip. Which, psychically speaking, they are.
Though it is never less than compelling, Cronenberg's movie is murky on Beverly's descent into drug dependency, one of the many ways he tries to separate himself from his brother and establish his own identity. While the dialogue and direction are rich with irony, Dead Ringer's script (by Cronenberg and Norman Snider) has so many diverting subtexts that they serve to undermine the urgency of Irons' brilliant double role.
One of these subtexts is the practice of gynecology, which Cronenberg slyly depicts as a kind of bizarre priesthood whose clergy wears crimson robes and brandishes speculums as though they were chalices. To characterize Beverly Mantle's increasing instability, the unhappy twin creates gynecological instruments for mutant women, tools of such horrifying configurations that you don't even need to see them being used, though Cronenberg does not spare you this detail. (Many women watching these scenes will shudder yes, I've been to this doctor. This is a movie that puts gynecology back in the dark ages.)
Though Cronenberg unforgettably created visual correlatives for psychic meltdowns in movies such as Scanners and The Fly, finally he is unable to evoke Beverly's disintegration in a way that's as memorable as the surgery scenes. For Cronenbergians, this is a mild letdown. You feel that the director has led you blindfolded inside the psyche of Elliot and Beverly Mantle but is too scandalized to show you what he sees. Is it a beauty contest or an ugly contest?
DEAD RINGERS * * *
Produced by David Cronenberg and Marc Boyman; directed by David Cronenberg; written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider, based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland; photography by Peter Suschitzky; music by Howard Shore; distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
Beverly Mantle - Jeremy Irons
Elliot Mantle - Jeremy Irons
Claire Niveau - Genevieve Bujold
Cary - Heidi von Palleske
Anders Wolleck - Stephen Lack
Parent's guide: R (profanity, nudity, sex, drugs, gore, gynecology)
Showing at: area theaters