Friday, December 21, 2012

Dead Ringers (1988)

Canada/USA, 116 minutes
Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: David Cronenberg, Norman Snider, Bari Wood, Jack Geasland
Photography: Peter Suschitzky
Music: Howard Shore
Editor: Ronald Sanders
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Heidi von Palleske, Barbara Gordon, Shirley Douglas, Stephen Lack, Nick Nicholas, Lynne Cormack, Jill Hennessy, Jacqueline Hennessy

Director David Cronenberg suffered the indignity of seeing what is arguably his greatest film headed for release in the same time frame as the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito comedy vehicle Twins, which necessitated a retitling exercise for Cronenberg. It's a small thing in the larger scheme, but what a clanking substitution. This is not a movie about the idiomatic senses of the term, a casual way of remarking on a surprising resemblance, but instead more explicitly about profound psychological implications of a reasonably common biological occurrence, identical twins. In many ways it is all about the process of psychological separation—individuation, if you will.

It is also, no surprise, an unrelieved creep show with a masterful performance at its center by Jeremy Irons as a pair of identical twin gynecologists who have their own approach to things. That might just be Cronenberg having fun the way he does (and many parts of this are actually very funny, another of his hallmarks often missed)—but it's also not hard to imagine a case for Cronenberg's entire career having been always pointed, true north fashion, toward making just such a movie about twin gynecologists.

It's mostly sterile and clinical, but then, after all, it's a clinical setting. And if the various strange rhythms of Jeremy Irons's conversations with himself rarely feel natural, that's largely as intended too. In fact, I don't think I've yet seen any actor playing two roles in conversation that has ever felt natural (or, similarly, real-life characters speaking with animated characters). There is something subtle missing, some harmonizing or interactive rhythmic elements of the dialogue, some sense of the negative psychological space two actual people define between themselves. But for Cronenberg, in this instance, that's just what the doctor ordered, adding immeasurably to a gnawing sense of alienation and stunted growth that starts to become very difficult to put one's finger on within the context.

If I say Irons's conversations with himself rarely feel natural, by no means do I intend to minimize the scope of what he has pulled off. He is more than convincing as a pair of twins—hard to distinguish at first, because the physical resemblance is so exact, but eventually the differences become apparent and make each fairly easy to recognize quickly. It's probably even fair enough to characterize it as not one but two performances, and they are equally among Irons's best in a long and interesting career.

But all the themes, of course, are pure Cronenberg: vaguely icky biology draped over everything like swamp miasma rolling over the land at night, emotionally broken human beings evincing symptoms such as sadomasochism, fear of women, and drug use, with drugs providing only the usual double-edged ameliorative effects. Life itself is imagined as a malevolent, unceasing, moist, and leaking process that convulses and thrusts blindly, overlaying all perception, distorting and changing everything one thinks is certain.

In fact, the purest moment of Cronenberg in this, a brief nightmare one of the twins has, sharpens the contrast, helping one see how subtly he has integrated his familiar preoccupations and sublimated his impulses to shock and disorient. The extremity of behavior of the brothers—drunken public displays, manipulating and sharing women, abusing exotic pharmaceuticals—is artfully reined in and counterpointed by the effluvia of gentle upper-class privilege in which the movie swims. The atmosphere is moody and restrained, always impeccably appointed, even as it lunges constantly in the direction of the sloppy and outrageous.

Much of this feels like a dream but little of it is presented that way. Thus, in one of the picture's most famous set pieces, a wholly unreal surgery scene is played out with all the attending doctors and nurses decked out in flowing, rich red robes and masks. It has the look and feel of a theater performance, and the surreal weirdness is only emphasized when the more obviously sicker of the two gynecologists, Beverly Mantle (his brother is named Elliot but called Elly, so both have feminizing names), decides to use the new gynecological instruments he has designed and had made, which he describes as instruments "for working on mutant women."

It's misogyny, pure and simple, but with an emphasis on the motivating factor of fear, which is forever at the bottom of the loathing, here and, usually, in life too. The misogyny of the Mantle twins is a discomfiting constant, in the way they regard women as inferior biological machines on which they work, in the cavalier way they use women, and in their inability to come to terms with any kind of intimacy outside of their own relationship. As Beverly begins to go mad, aided and abetted by drug addiction, his bedrock beliefs and sense of reality begin to betray him, and gradually help us see just how bad it is. "There's nothing the matter with the instrument," Beverly says after the ill-fated surgery scene, in which the patient was nearly killed and as a consequence he has been suspended from practice. "It's the body. The woman's body was all wrong."

The precipitating event for Beverly's tailspin is his meeting and falling in love with a woman, the actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold, who is generally limited but quite effective here). As he is more and more drawn toward her he also finds himself increasingly aware of all the ways he is trapped in his symbiotic relationship with his brother. The talk between them more and more drifts toward psychological separation, and the sickness of both deepens. The famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng come up as a topic between them more and more and it slowly comes clear how fatal a genuine psychological liberation threatens to be for both of them.

It's actually quite an impressive feat that Cronenberg pulls off here, taking something as insular as privileged, depraved Toronto gynecologists and ultimately making it a story we all know at deepest levels: choosing trade-offs between intimacy and individual achievement, between career and family, between the need for emotional connection with another and the need for respect, dignity, and acceptance from many. Peeling back the layers only reveals the viscera and ultimately the skeleton, even if it is on an abstracted, emotional/psychological level. If there's one thing Cronenberg can do well, it's reveal the viscera. What we could have only dimly suspected before this is that he could be so artful, and indeed so restrained, about the metaphorical connections (nonetheless real) between viscera and our most interior lives.

Top 10 of 1988
I surprised myself a little as I was putting together this list—somehow I was used to thinking of 1988 as something of a lackluster year, but I found a lot of titles I liked a lot, some, such as Little Dorrit and Crossing Delancey, which I have not seen much of since, if at all. There are also some relative giants in Grave of the Fireflies, The Decalogue, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with the ultimate result that there are at least six more movies beyond this 10 I think are worth tracking down, viz., Beetlejuice, Bull Durham, The Last Temptation of Christ (once loved but some of the luster gone now), My Neighbor Totoro, The Naked Gun, and Tanner '88. I still think Die Hard is overrated but I guess I need to see again, and yeah, I also remain absurdly faithful to the Woody Allen.
1. Dead Ringers
2. Another Woman
3. Grave of the Fireflies
4. The Decalogue
5. Little Dorrit
6. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
7. Hairspray
8. Chocolat
9. Crossing Delancey
10. Dangerous Liaisons

Didn't like so much: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Bird, Rain Man, The Thin Blue Line, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Gaps: Distant Voices, Still Lives; Earth Girls Are Easy; Frantic; The Milagro Beanfield War; Tucker: The Man and His Dream

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