Screening Log #38: Dead Ringers (1988)

Written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider, based on the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold




A strange thing happens when one considers the nature of self-consciousness. The self-reflexivity of self-consciousness reveals a structure that is at once a thinking subject and the subject of thought, simultaneously, and abstractly, without content, a subject and an other; in a moment, self-consciousness both affirms and alienates itself as both subject and object. Herein lies an essential point of psychological conflict for an individual, that any thinking act involving self-consciousness immediately, and irrevocably, mediates its subject from self and experience. That these simultaneous acts of affirmation and negation are not separate, but, rather, are implicitly unified as intrinsic aspects of self-consciousness, is the locus for what can be a profound sense of anxiety: there can be no real experience, no sense of self without an equal sense of loss or separation from any immediate act of being.

This anxiety is, to my mind, a key theme and entry point into the thematic bent of David Cronenberg’s ouvre. Cronenberg’s films, from Rabid, to Scanners, to The Fly, and to later works such as A History of Violence, all carry the germ of this anxiety in them, it manifesting in various ways. In most cases there exists a schism between the minds of his characters and their bodies, the self-conscious alienation unveiling itself through points of contact with technology and disease and violence. When the body is modified, or destroyed, both the separation of the mind from the body, as well as its persistence despite this alteration/nullification, are re-affirmed; these moments represent physical actualizations of the inherent trauma of self-consciousness. That this anxiety is acutely experienced, to some degree, by everyone speaks to the enduring quality of Cronenberg’s work.

Dead Ringers represents what may be the most explicit representation of this thematic element in all of Cronenberg’s work. Beverly and Elliot Mantle are identical twin gynecologists, both played by Jeremy Irons in a performance of deft subtlety, who have grown up sharing all of their experiences. Each twin is distinctly his own character in many ways: Beverly is the introverted scholar, reticent and awkward in contact with others, Elliot the more out-going, dynamic, public face of the brilliant and successful Harvard-educated doctors. The twin brothers each perform their roles in a comfortable sort of equilibrium until two separate ruptures occur that make each brother aware of, and alienated from, their sense of identity.

These ruptures are, of course, romantic and economical. Famous actress Claire Niveau, Geneviève Bujold, enters the brothers’ clinic in the hopes of becoming pregnant. Niveau strikes up a relationship with Beverly after first having dinner with Elliot who was playing his brother. Beverly’s relationship with Claire causes the twin to internalize his experiences and emotions, rather than sharing them explicitly with his brother, as they have shared everything; Elliot quips to Beverly “Bev, you haven’t done anything until I’ve done it too.” Elliot’s remark encapsulates the twins’ standing as a model of self-consciousness, an activity requiring the involvement of both subject and object to achieve an actualization that is simultaneously deferred. Shortly after Beverly begins his relationship with Claire, Elliot is offered an influential position teaching medicine at a university. This teaching position marks an economic and social privilege afforded to one brother, but not the other. In both instances, experience is splintered between the two, private interests work to alienate the unity once shared by the twins.

It is possible to read this situation as analogous to the structure of self-consciousness already introduced: Beverly and Elliot are both equally unified in a harmonious relationship of uninterrupted and unmediated being until interests are introduced that spark an awareness of the radical separateness of one from the other. Both Beverly’s relationship with Claire and Elliot’s teaching position represent the moment of recognition of separation and mediation. Cronenberg reinforces this reading when, while sleeping beside Claire, Beverly has a dream in which Claire bites through a grotesque,  umbilical-esque, bridge of flesh that connects him to his brother. Beverly’s subconscious mind apprehends both the nature of the brothers’ connection and the violent division that is to occur between them.

This idea of separation gains a foothold as the film progresses. Beverly develops an addiction to pills through this relationship with Claire, his dependence on them for functioning increasing as his ability to perform his job, with an increased workload with Elliot acting at the university, decreases. These problems are exacerbated when Claire leaves town for work and a misunderstanding leaves Beverly with the impression that she’s been unfaithful. During Elliot’s attempts at cleaning up his brother he reminds him of the story of the first “Siamese” twins, Chang and Eng, and how Chang’s sudden death in his sleep resulted in Eng’s death shortly thereafter. Beverly also becomes distressed by his patients at work, increasingly stating that the women he sees at the clinic look fine on the outside, but are mutated and strange internally. His new apprehension of separateness from his brother manifests itself most easily via the physical internality of the sexual other. Elliot, in reaction to his feeling so distanced from his brother, begins sympathetically taking drugs slowly, stating that they simply need to synchronize themselves again, seeking the union they once shared that has been irreparably rended.

The film spirals toward a conclusion in which the finality of the twins’ separation is actualized. Removed from the external world, the twins regress in a drug-induced haze before Beverly employs a custom set of tools he had made to deal with his “mutant women” patients as a means to separate his twin from him permanently. He dresses and ventures out into the world, calling Claire from a payphone who asks “Who is this?” Beverly, subjective identity now collapsed into a subject without object to complete it, is unable to respond. The film closes with one brother on top of the other, distinction collapsed, equally catatonic, a model of mutually exclusive subjects internally deferred infinitely without external reference.

That Cronenberg’s casting collapses two distinct twin roles into one actor represents a canny, and knowing, move that gestures towards an understanding of the (at least) dual modes of self-consciousness subsumed into any one identity. There’s certainly an interesting analogue to self-consciousness to be observed in Irons’ acting, creating two characters at once unified by his personage and manifested separately in performance. This performative analogue is echoed again in the assemblage of the film; by creating a single shot composed of two separate shots, Cronenberg imbues Dead Ringers with a technical appropriateness that is reflected in his casting decisions and works to heighten the relationship between the content and structure of his film. Perhaps it is not a stretch to suggest that Cronenberg is aware of the manner in which these aspects of his film are subsumed into the final product of it, functioning as the unifying and deconstructing self-consciousness of his own film, threading the subject and object of his film together, actualizing his own personal anxiety and, through this, articulating it for us all.

One Response to “Screening Log #38: Dead Ringers (1988)”
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  1. […] cited the mind/body, psycho/physiological, connections inherent in David Cronenberg’s oeuvre previously. However, where Dead Ringers presents this thematic concern directly through its character […]

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