Dead Ringers (1988)
Directed by David Cronenberg

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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Identical twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons) grow up to be gynecologists, open a practice together, and generally distinguish themselves professionally. After Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold), an actress with an unusual medical condition, comes to their clinic, both the brothers become sexually involved with her, without telling her that they are actually two different individuals. Over time, the shyer brother, Beverly, falls in love with Claire, but, as he does so, and his relationship with Elliot deteriorates, he grows increasingly disconnected from reality. Despite Elliot's efforts to protect and help his brother, Beverly's behavior becomes ever more bizarre and self destructive, until it begins to affect even Elliot's mental state.

David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers is hardly a great movie, but it is fascinating from the start. The director's depictions of the Mantle brothers are surprisingly subtle, and his presentations of their deteriorating psychological states are consistently affecting. The quality of the film cannot, however be credited to the director alone. Iron's performances as both Beverly and Elliot Mantle are genuinely enthralling and make the movie far more engaging than it would have been had virtually any other actor played those parts.

Many of the director's films have focused on characters whose sanity is disintegrating, but the presentations of these characters are not always similar. While in such movies as Spider and Naked Lunch Cronenberg draws the viewer into a given character's world and engulfs him in that person's madness, in Dead Ringers he never allows the viewer to experience Beverly's mental states. Although he is made aware of the character's delusions, the viewer never feels the same confusion Beverly does. The movie is not, as a consequence, as affecting as either of the two films just mentioned. It is, nevertheless, consistently skillfully crafted, and the viewer is enthralled by the spectacle being presented to him. While he is never submerged in Beverly's fluid, deluded existence, he does feel sorrow as he watches the character's mind and life both unravel.

Even though the director never lets the viewer enter into either Beverly or Elliot's thoughts, Cronenberg does, however, distance the world his protagonists inhabit from that of a psychologically healthy person by including a number of his usual strange touches, which become increasingly prominent as the film moves towards its conclusion. At one point, for example, Beverly dreams he is connected to his brother with a sort of thick umbilical cord which Claire bites through in order separate them. Later, the same brother, having decided that women have mutated, invents a number of weird and horrific gynecological examination instruments. Such scenes present the moviegoer with Beverly's universe, but, as they are depicted either as being hallucinations or as showing the consequences of hallucinations, the viewer is always aware that, within the the context of the film, they are unreal. The moviegoer does not, therefore, find himself unable to distinguish between the real and the hallucinatory. He remains an objective observer of the story being unfolded before him rather than a participant in it.

Perhaps the film's most conspicuous virtue is not its directing, however, but Jeremy Irons' performance. The actor's portrayals of the Mantle brothers are subtle and enthralling. He brings each of the two men to life and distinguishes between them without giving way to exaggeration. As a consequence, the two never become mere caricatures.

Although Dead Ringers is far from being David Cronenberg's best film, it is, nonetheless, an engaging, well made movie.

Review by Keith Allen

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