When they were kids growing up in Toronto in 1954, Elliot and Beverly Mantle were already curious enough to want to know more about human sexuality and the female anatomy. “I’ve discovered why sex is,” Elliot tells his younger brother, walking down the streets in their neighborhood one afternoon. “It’s because humans don’t live underwater… fish don’t need sex because they just lay the eggs and fertilize them in the water. Humans can’t do that—because they don’t live in the water. They have to… internalize the water. Therefore, we have sex.”
Beverly is confused. “So," he asks, "you mean, humans wouldn’t have sex if they lived in the water?” Elliot clarifies that “they’d have a kind of sex, but the kind where you wouldn’t have to touch each other.” To Beverly, the shyer of the two brothers, this sounds perfectly agreeable. “I like that idea,” he says.
Elliot and Beverly are twins. Their story, as told in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (based on the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland), is a romanticized account of the true story of Cyril and Stewart Marcus, two twin gynecologists who committed suicide in their apartment together in 1975. In Cronenberg’s film, Elliot and Beverly are seen as successful gynecologists who start out their medical careers, as played by real-life twins Jonathan and Nicholas Haley, performing intraovular surgery on a doll at the age of 9; at Cambridge more than a decade later, they are each played by Jeremy Irons as brothers who have achieved fame around the campus for their invention of an instrument known as the Mantle Retractor. Two decades later, back in Toronto, they have their own thriving medical practice. By the end of the film, they will be dead.
“It will be a departure in the sense that it will be perceived as a so-called realistic drama—whereas my other films have tended to be categorized as horror or science fiction,” Cronenberg told interviewers of the film in 1988. “And I think that’s valuable because it would be a mistake for people to think of this film as a horror film; it just simply isn’t.” Irons, who later went on to win an Academy Award for his performance in Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune (1990)—and even thanked Cronenberg in his acceptance speech—acknowledges the film as helping make his newfound success in Hollywood possible. “It’s very hard for an actor to find that sort of opportunity in his career,” he says on the DVD commentary. “I look back at it and think, ‘Those opportunities don’t come very often.’”
Because nobody in reality knows what drove the real Marcus twins to suicide, Cronenberg’s Mantle twins are kept at a safe distance from the audience. Their tragedy is left open for discussion. What happened to them? It’s worth revisiting Dead Ringers with multiple viewings even if it isn’t very easy to pinpoint the areas at which the lives of Beverly and, later, Elliot, begin unraveling. Cronenberg offers one possibility in the introduction of one of their recent patients, the movie star Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold). Beverly has diagnosed her as a “trifurcate” after discovering that she has three doorways (cervixes) in her uterus, which—according to the Mantles—is an indication that she is never going to have children. She has already slept with Elliot, and when she returns to the clinic she is impressed by Beverly’s lectures about how “I’ve often thought there should be beauty contests for the insides of bodies.” She is not aware that Elliot and Beverly are two different people.
For awhile, though, we may be just as confused about the differences between Elliot and Beverly as Claire is. Are they two different people? Could they be the same person? “I think there’s something wrong with you,” Claire tells Beverly. “I don’t know what it is—I can’t put a label on it—but you’re subtlety, I don’t know… schizophrenic, or something.” And unless one is already familiar with the true story that inspired Dead Ringers, one could easily suspect that Cronenberg might be up to mischief; is he making an “evil twin movie” here and pulling a fast one on us the same way Robert Mulligan did with his chilling cult classic The Other (1972)? Not at all, and when Claire finally gets to see Elliot and Beverly sitting together at lunch, she realizes that she has gone to bed with both of them. “This is the most disgusting thing that’s ever happened to me,” she sputters, tossing a glass of water in Beverly’s face. After she storms out, we get a good grasp of the discernible difference between the two brothers—when we notice that Elliot is laughing, and Beverly is in tears.
No wonder Beverly is the one with a woman’s name. Elliot, the ladies’ man, has usually been able to get girlfriends for his brother by sleeping with them first, and then giving Beverly the sloppy seconds. That’s fine with Beverly, who is not like Elliot and doesn’t have the will to call vixens like Mimsy and Coral (Jill and Jacqueline Hennessy) of the Escort Embassy over to the apartment; although when Beverly gives a drunken speech during a rewards ceremony about how “I do everything for those bimbos except take them home and stick it in them!” it is clear that there is a kind of unspoken professional jealously between the twins. Still, they’re very close. “My brother and I have always shared everything,” Beverly tries to explain to Claire. “I’m not a thing,” she responds. He tries to sugarcoat the situation, “I mean, people… experiences. It’s never bothered me before now.”
It becomes apparent that Beverly’s complicated relationship with Claire starts weighing heavily on his health, beginning with his and Claire’s addiction to vials of Butazamine (“She’s heard that it makes sex come on like Nagasaki,” says Elliot of the drug), and then by Elliot’s announcement that he’s been offered an associate professorship and, worse, Claire’s own announcement that she must leave for ten weeks to shoot another film. From then on, Beverly starts going insane. He has begun to have delusions that Claire’s diagnosis as a trifurcate classifies her as an inhuman mutant, and it is not long before he has fears about his other patients as well. Is something happening to the Mantle’s patients? Could they all be mutants? He hires an artist named Wolleck (Stephen Lack) to arm him with a set of monstrous-looking surgical instruments to prepare himself for this phenomenon. When Elliot returns, he finds a distraught Beverly who cannot stop crying: about his love for Claire, about her possible infidelity, about the drugs, about the mutants, about everything.
Guiding the film along is Cronenberg’s endlessly imaginative visual direction. Accompanied by a lovely Howard Shore score, he begins the film with menacing illustrations of Greek figures and conjoined twins set amongst a red background. Red and blues are predominant especially in the surgery sequences, in which Cronenberg and his cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, capture the eerie menace of the Mantles' Darth Vader-like suits. More fascinating is Cronenberg’s ability to get both of the Mantle twins in the same shot whenever he can, using technology that was groundbreaking for its time to get Irons on one side of the frame, and then move him to the other side; the lighting and set design had to be equal with each take in order to ensure the effectiveness of this illusion. And even when he can’t get the two twins’ faces to be seen in the same frame, Cronenberg still manages to ensure breathtaking direction, as during a scene in which Elliot and Beverly both slow-dance with the redheaded Cary (Heidi von Palleske) to “In the Still of the Night (I’ll Remember)”, sung on the soundtrack by the Five Satins as if nostalgically remembering a time when Elliot and Beverly were younger—before their romances with women so unfortunately complicated their lives.
“I’m only doing it to me, Elly,” Beverly says, after his most recent panic attack nearly kills a patient and costs him and Elliot their hospital privileges. “Don’t you have a will of your own?” Elliot replies by reminding his brother of the fable of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins who couldn’t live without each other, and then adds, “Does that answer your question?” Try as they might, the Mantles just cannot break off their connection with each other; to do so would be fatal. “The truth is, nobody can tell us apart,” Elliot confesses to Cary of his connection to his brother. “We are perceived as one person. If Bev goes down the tubes, I go with him… whatever’s in his bloodstream goes directly into mine.” But Elliot has been predicting his and his brother’s downfall for a very long time now. “You contribute… a confusing element to the Mantle brothers’ saga,” he informs Claire, before she leaves Beverly to go off to shoot her film. “Possibly a destructive one.” His prediction will prove to be correct, and in more ways that one.
The film’s final sequence moves me to sadness. Their careers over and their sanities long gone, Elliot and Beverly lock themselves up in their apartment. They’re celebrating their birthday… or is it? Now Elliot is the weaker brother: he’s trashed the whole place, he’s whining for ice cream to go with his cake and orange soda, he has taken a shower with his clothes on and he asks Beverly to perform a bloody incision on him—perhaps this will sever them from each other at last. Beverly does so, but with regret. “Why are you crying?” Elliot croaks. “Separation,” Beverly stutters, “can be… a terrifying thing.” Elliot manages a smile: “Don’t worry, baby brother. We’ll always be together.” And once the incision is performed and Elliot is killed, Beverly is left alone: to wander about; to call out Elliot’s name and receive no answer; to walk outside, call Claire and hang up without speaking; to go back inside and then perish on his dead brother’s lap. Even in death, Elliot and Beverly Mantle are locked up together in a terrible, inseparable union.