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Body Doubles: Identity and Psychology in Dead Ringers

By John Wenzel

David Cronenberg is a director often overlooked by the public. Sure, he's got one hell of a cult following, (both in the academic community and with the art house-types), but he deserves to be up there with Lynch, Scorsese, The Coens, and other modern masters. Maybe it's the unsettling nature of his subject matter, or his graphic treatment thereof that turns the public off. But I would argue he's one of the vital voices in contemporary cinema. I suppose he strays into B-movie territory every so often since acting frequently takes second-place to plot, but his directorial precision is almost worthy of Hitchcock. His films deal with a multitude of socially and culturally relevant topics, and they do it in ways that are both thought-provoking and entertaining. No easy feat!

His 1988 film Dead Ringers is a great example of this: a calculated study of kinship and identity. This film is particularly interesting to me since I have a lot of research on the psychology of twins, (as well as articles about David Cronenberg).

Dead Ringers stars Jeremy Irons in the dual roles of Beverly and Elliot Mantle. For context: The Mantles are successful, respected gynecologists and award-winning pioneers in the field of women's infertility. Their clinic is top-notch and their methods are seen as miraculous. But what few people know is the extent to which their lives overlap and intertwine. Beverly does most of the research, but his brother takes the credit and makes the public appearances.

The film, which begins innocuously enough, quickly tangles and confuses the roles of the Mantle brothers in disturbing ways. It's revealed that despite their division of work (research vs. speech-making, care vs. hustling), they often "share women" who cannot tell them apart. At one point Elliot, the dominant twin, even yells to Beverly, "You'd still be a virgin if it weren't for me!" An unfortunate victim of this is their star client Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), a famous actress with a hilariously massive pill habit. Her descent into and reemergence from the Mantles' sick world is as harrowing as any onscreen.

The palpable sense of dread arises in this film not from grisly special effects, but from the psychological implications of its plot, from the "terror of intimacy," as Linda Kauffman puts it in her great book Bad Girls and Sick Boys. Cronenberg achieves with dramatic performances what many directors can't do with immense budgets and special effects.

In my opinion, what is so thoroughly terrifying about Dead Ringers is the ambiguous nature of the questions it poses. For example, an obvious one is: Where does identity lie? If it's in the physical, in the body, then it explains why the Mantle twins are disconcerting to those with rigid notions of material individuality. Being the same person physically would imply they're the same person mentally.

But if identity lies in the mind, twins can be equally disconcerting, symbolizing two variations of the same thing, two humans given almost exactly equal capacities in life, yet developing in different ways due to environment, experience, etc. This would give credit to the explicitly environmental aspects of human development. (However, to divide identity into the physical and mental may be to fall prey to the same simplistic ideas of binary oppositions that make twins so conventionally fascinating in the first place).

Does the "correct" explanation of identity exist in some fusion of the physical and mental aspects, like a scale that alternates depending on the specific experiences of each person? This may be too binary too. But to study identical twins, as in Dead Ringers, is to admit a measure of the binary into reality. Twins are tangible doubles, right? They're duality manifested, and intellectual paradigms have a habit of originating in the observable.

As psychologist Amram Scheinfeld says in Twins and Supertwins, "since identical twins have exactly the same hereditary equipment for mental as well as other traits, the question goes beyond their relationship and into a much wider area: To what extent are the mental traits of human beings in general produced by their hereditary makeup, and to what extent by their rearing, experience, and education?" Scheinfeld's obviously paraphrasing the well-known "nature/nurture" debate, a topic with particularly interesting implications for twins.

Similarly, Dead Ringers is Cronenberg's way of exploring the "Biology is Destiny" idea. The bulk of psychological literature I consulted seems to corroborate this idea, but with reservations. In repeated laboratory experiments, identical twins were proven to be closer, mentally and physically, than fraternal twins or "singletons." Barbara Schave, a twin researcher, has said, "Twins grow up differently from single children because twinship remains at the core of their individual identity." So in this way, biology becomes culture. That is to say, the inescapable facets of the biological are integrated and understood culturally, and therefore muddle the boundaries of the two. But then again, to say that "twinship remains at the core of their individual identity," is seemingly contradictory. On the surface, twinship negates the very notion of individuality. It's like saying something as oxymoronic as "unique repetition."

So therein lies the fascinating paradox of Dead Ringers.

Even more fascinating is the fact that the film is taken from a true story. The Mantles are based on the real-life gynecologist twins Stewart and Cyril Marcus who were found "gaunt and already partially decayed in their East 63rd Street apartment amidst a litter of garbage and pharmaceuticals," according to a newspaper article. This parallels the climax of Dead Ringers in which the Mantle brothers, delirious and addicted to drugs, hole up in their posh Toronto apartment and waste away. Of course, Cronenberg spices it up a bit by having Beverly kill his brother with an elaborate surgical instrument, but the effect is the same.

The closing shot of the film is a slow dolly away from the dead brothers, identically dressed and intertwined on the floor. This echoes the beginning, as we see the two 12-year old Mantle twins (also identically dressed) quietly cooperating in a gynecological "operation" on a toy corpse.

Psychoanalytic and feminist readings of the film have made use of this cyclical pattern of twinship. In fact, Linda Kauffman argues that it's their very twinship that propels the Mantles to be gynecologists in the first place: "They are driven by an unconscious compulsion to explore not just the womb, but all that connects womb, home, and the uncanny," (another quote taken from her book).

Other "twin films" take advantage of this, like Ivan Reitman's Twins (also released in 1988). The quest in these films, according to Micheline Frank is "not for power, money, or fame but for the Female. . .in the Twins case, their mother, but on another level, for the feminine within the male." This is a revealing comment in light of Dead Ringers, especially since Cronenberg himself sees the Mantle brothers' relationship as "fundamentally homosexual." The exploration the female body that takes place in Ringers is a prenatal fantasy, an attempt to return to the womb.

Linda Kauffman proposes that through set design and dialogue, the characters in the film explore the woman's womb (literally) and the concept of "intrauterine" existence (abstractly). She quotes Freud on this subject, and even goes as far to say that, "in (the Mantles') hands, bodies are not born, they are made," (alluding to Haraway's Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies?)

This would seem a logical assertion, as the Mantles invent outrageous, organic-looking gynecological instruments resembling turkey basters and power tools. It also introduces the element of sexuality, and the accompanying lack of pleasure that demystifying it produces. The Mantle twins, especially Beverly, are psychotically devoted to understanding the woman's body, even at the cost of the woman. A terrifying scene is one in which Beverly screams, "The instruments are fine. We have the technology. It's the woman's body that's all wrong!"

As I said before, Claire Niveau is the unfortunate woman to come between the twins. The fact that Cronenberg duplicates the filmic conventions Laura Mulvey outlined in her famous "Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema" may at first seem to reinforce the superficial misogyny of the film. In a revealing bit of dialogue in the film, (an award speech at which a drunken Beverly remarks about "slaving over hot snatches all day") Kauffman says that "Cronenberg confirms women's deep-seated suspicions of medical malpractice and misogyny."

However, Cronenberg subtly subverts the ideological nature of filmic conventions by furthering men's anxiety during the scenes of gynecological examinations. While it "perfectly epitomizes `the male gaze'," (with the woman averting her eyes as part of her `to-be-looked-at-ness') it violates men's "idealizations of romantic love" by deconstructing the body even beyond specific parts and down to individual organs. At one point, Beverly comments to a patient that he cannot understand why there aren't beauty contests for the inside of bodies, such as "most perfectly developed spleen."

Cronenberg thus aligns the twins' abuse of women's bodies and latent sadism with scopophilia and "the desire of mastery through the look," as Kauffman says. But since they never attain this, and since Claire Niveau escapes unharmed and sober at the end of the film, we see that the twins fail miserably, hurting only themselves. While this certainly doesn't assert Dead Ringers as a something like a feminist narrative, it's a definitively anti-pleasure one.

Cronenberg has dealt with the body and identity (both before and since Dead Ringers) in such films as Videodrome (1982), The Fly (1986) and Crash (1996). His background in medicine may explain why he approaches horror and pornography as subjects of philosophical interest, "filtered through the prisms of science, medicine, and technology," (to quote Kauffman again).

In his own words Cronenberg states, "I think Dead Ringers really relates to all intense relationships in which things happen that have the potential to become liberating on one level, but suffocating on the other level. And I think at that point you're talking about marriage, you're talking about parents and children. The twins become a metaphor for all those things."

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