Dead Ringers: An Auteur’s Look at Body Identity & Separation Anxiety

In 1988, David Cronenberg released the fascinating and brilliant Dead Ringers. The film stars Jeremy Irons portraying twin gynecologists, Elliot and Beverly Mantle. The twins grew up making sure that they would not have any experiences alone that the other one didn’t have as well. This included living together, sharing a medical practice, and sleeping with the same women.

The Mantle Twins are well-respected physicians and try their best to live a luxurious lifestyle. They already made fame within the medical community by inventing an instrument used in fertility treatments called the Mantle Retractor. While they are physically identical and very adept at portraying each other in certain situations, there are some personality differences that one can detect to tell them apart. Elliot, the older twin, is more into being upper class and living for the finer things. He is more eloquent than Beverly, the shy twin. Bev is more emotional than his brother. Cronenberg identifies him as the more feminine of the duo.

Now, if you are beginning to think to yourself that these personality characteristics sound all well and good, but how will you as a viewer be able to tell the twins apart unless they wear name-tags? Fear not, because how Jeremy Irons portrays the subtleties of their energies, emotions, and movements is nothing short of magic. Irons is so masterful in these performances that it is almost instant that you can tell Elliot and Bev apart. There are even tricky scenes in which one twin poses as the other and the nuances that Jeremy uses still make it easy to tell them apart as a viewer. It was such an outrage at the time that Jeremy Irons was not nominated for an Oscar, that when he won shortly after for portraying Claus Von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune, he thanked David Cronenberg in his acceptance speech, even though he won by being directed by Barbet Schroeder.

Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Jeremy Irons sitting at an upper class table in a restaurant in Dead Ringers
Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, and Jeremy Irons

The Mantle brothers are inseparable until an actress named Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) becomes a patient at their clinic. Elliot is fascinated when he gives her a pelvic exam and finds an abnormality. She has three cervixes that lead to three separate departments in her uterus, making her infertile. Elliot has a go at her after hours and recommends that Beverly pose as him so he can have sex with her also. Bev quickly develops feelings for her after their first sexual encounter that involved her being tied up in bondage using rubber tourniquets and surgical scissors. Yes, you did read that last sentence right.

As Bev’s love for Claire increases, she brings up that he’s “subtlely schizophrenic.” She analyzes him to the point that causes Beverly to pop one of the pills that Claire has a habit of taking. After a friend asks her about the famous Mantle Twins, she is shocked. She meets them both at a restaurant and realizes that she’s been played when she sees how identical they are. She growls at Elliot, “Beverly’s the sweet one and you’re the shit!” Elliot clarifies, “Actually, I was the one who fucked you first, but I gave you to my baby brother because you weren’t very good.” After she leaves angrily, Elliot laughs until he sees that Bev is actually crying.

Bev eventually runs into Claire and starts seeing her again. Claire becomes a real threat to the closeness of the twins. Beverly has a drug-fueled anxiety dream in which he attempts to separate the twins who are joined by grotesque connective tissue at their abdomens in the most Cronenberg-esque body horror scene in the film.

Gynecological metallic instruments created by Beverly Mantle
“Gynecological Instruments for Operating on Mutant Woman”

Beverly starts taking more and more pills. Claire leaves town to do another film. Bev spirals out of control when he mistakenly assumes that she’s having an affair. He finds an artist who creates art out of metal and consults with him on the idea of creating medical tools for him. The exhibit eventually becomes “Gynecological Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women”. By this time, Bev is completely unruly and unpredictable due to his addiction and depression. He attempts to use his art commissioned medical instruments during a surgical procedure, and the results are detrimental to the careers of the Mantle Twins. I have to add that the deep red surgical scrubs that they do wear during surgical procedures make them look like they are sacrificing someone, not healing them.

Beverly Mantle preparing for surgery
Beverly Mantle in surgical scrubs

Beverly’s full-on psychosis has him rant to Elliot: “The patients are getting strange. They look all right on the outside but their insides, deformed. I had to deal with it somehow…radical technology was required.”

The saga of the Mantle twins could only end up as a tragedy. Before he follows Bev’s path, Elliot meets with his friend/lover, Cary. She is the only woman Elliot is able to confide in. Cary and Elliot tried to instigate a menage a trois with the bereaved Beverly in an earlier scene. That did not work out. Elliot laments to Cary, “The truth is nobody can tell us apart. We are perceived as one person…Bev and I just need to get synchronized.

The final scenes are filled with beauty and sorrow. During the course, these strong, intelligent men become childlike in their suffering. The closeness of Elliot and Beverly Mantle is so strong that they feel they have to make very drastic moves. There is blood and heartache. The way David Cronenberg and cinematographer, Peter Suschitzsky, set up the shots of the final moments of Dead Ringers, gives the Mantle brothers a poetic finale.

David Cronenberg got the idea for Dead Ringers from an actual news story. Twin gynecologists, Stewart and Cyril Marcus, were found dead in New York in 1975. That inspired the book, Twins, by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland in 1977. Cronenberg loosely based the film on these sources. These inspirations led him to create this film, especially the death of the Marcus twins. As he explains in the audio commentary of the Criterion edition of Dead Ringers: “It was the combination of the medical, the gynecological, and the deaths that were not quite suicides and not quite murders, combined with the twinning that made such a potent metaphorical statement for me.”

As a woman watching this film, I can’t help but be very disturbed by both the premise of women as mutants and the let’s say non-traditional methods that the Mantle bothers use. If I saw those metal art instruments in real life anywhere outside of a museum, I would run away. But I did feel empathy for the characters, particularly the Mantle twins (Beverly more than Elliot, of course). Jeremy Irons and David Cronenberg truly performed magic in that regard considering the despicable things the characters do in this film. Cronenberg emphasizes that fact that these twins are a mutation as well, but not in a way that would be insulting to twins in real life. He didn’t want to go with the good/evil twin cliche. Even with the destructive behavior of these characters, I cared for them. When a director and actor can do that, you know it’s something special.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Written by Joyce Picker

Joyce Picker is a film, television, and classic rock fanatic. She has worked as a film critic, a late night talk show columnist, a comedy writer, and an occasional contributor to The Blue Rose Magazine. She also worked in five different independent video stores and takes pride that most of her film knowledge is self taught. Her two favorite TV shows of all time, "Twin Peaks" and "SCTV", profoundly changed her life in very positive ways.

Jason hovering over the New York skyline in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.

Forget the Subtitle: A Defense of Friday the 13th Part VIII

Church the cat sits alone on the road

Fixed Cats Don’t Tend to Wander: How Pet Sematary (2019) Misunderstands Its Source Material