This week, in anticipation of Maps to the Stars, we're exploring David Cronenberg's long road away from the horror genre with his first feature film - excepting the weird outlier Fast Company - to fall square outside of the horror and sci-fi neighborhood. Dead Ringers is a "relatively straight drama" - this from the man himself - with only a relentless atmosphere of dread and one brief, flesh-gnawing nightmare to brand it as a Cronenberg film.
Of course, that's only if you look superficially, asking body horror or disease of every early Cronenberg film. Thematically, Dead Ringers, with its unhappy eroticism, its confrontation of the very human feeling of incompletion, is as Cronenbergian as they come. Also: mutated sex organs.
Jeremy Irons plays identical twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, two men who act as one. Beverly is shy, kind, compulsory in his research. Elliot is seductive and confident, gregarious. Together, they are everything a handsome, single doctor should be, trading places depending on one another's strengths and the task required. They share patients, awards and women - and the women are never the wiser, until Geneviève Bujold's Claire Niveau - an actress and casual pill abuser with a three-chambered uterus that fascinates both twins - notes that sometimes the man she is seeing is a loving partner, and sometimes he's nothing more than "an amusing lay." When she discovers that Elliot and Beverly are two, she forgives the deception fairly easily. She chooses Beverly, and a careless Elliot, after a little pouting, stands aside. But the first true divergent path these brothers have ever faced proves cancerous to the single life they have built together.
"You present a confusing element to the Mantle brothers saga - possibly a destructive one,” Elliot tells Claire, and sure enough, as Beverly chooses Claire over Elliot, it's as if he has chosen love over himself. These men have made their careers manipulating the very thing that makes a woman a woman, keeping a clinical distance from the consumptive power of romantic intimacy. Shy, insecure Beverly's first independent decision - accepting the love of a beautiful woman - doesn't fulfill him as one might think; it brings about his utter dissolution instead. And, Elliot, the seemingly strong partner in this inextricable puzzle, dissolves right along with him.
Mutated uteri aside, Dead Ringers is inspired by the story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, identical twin gynecologists who, in 1975, were both found dead in their shared apartment after suffering, together, withdrawal symptoms stemming from their barbiturate addiction. This story brought about a public outcry regarding the medical system's collective blind eye when it comes to "a physician's fitness to practice": like Beverly, one of the Marcus twins ("It is unclear which one") ripped away a patient's anesthetic mask and brought it to his own face during surgery. "The doctor was sent away, only to be replaced by his brother who was also 'out of it.'"
It's a sad, fascinating story, one that any number of filmmakers could turn into a competent thriller or movie-of-the-week. But only David Cronenberg could take that story and turn it into this: a heartbreaking tale of one individual, in the form of two men, who loses an essential part of himself in love and lust.