Dan Shaw: (originally published in: Film and Philosophy, Volume III)
PSYCHOLOGICAL DETERMINISM IN DEAD RINGERS
David Cronenberg created his most subtle and haunting vision of depravity in Dead Ringers. After his mainstream success with The Fly, a relatively conventional exercise in sci-fi that exhibited Cronenberg's continued fascination with fantastic horror (complete with gruesome special effects), he largely abandoned such effects to explore the psychological complexities of a relationship between twin brothers who specialize in problems with female fertility. Based on a notorious case of two New York gynecologists who were found dead of drug overdoses in their (completely trashed) Upper East Side apartment, Dead Ringers is a stunningly realistic film which gives Hitchcock a run for his money in its relentless and terrifying depiction of characters on the brink of mental collapse.
The Mantle brothers, Elliot and Beverly (both brilliantly played by Jeremy Irons) have a thriving private practice in which they play fertility gods, working virtual miracles in enabling previously infertile women to conceive. Cronenberg has chosen their names carefully: the second definition of "mantle" in The American Heritage Dictionary, "Anything that covers, envelops or conceals", suggests the deep tensions that exist underneath the brothers' competent facade. As their first names (and an old drawing in the title sequence) indicate, the two respectively embody the masculine and feminine sides of the human personality, with Elliot being a socially adept Casanova who does the public presentations and writes the scholarly articles, while his retiring brother Beverly grinds out the difficult research and deals with the personal anxieties of their most problematic patients. They enjoy an apparently satisfying symbiotic relationship, in which they share both professional and sexual triumphs, posing as each other when convenient.
This delicate balance is upset by the entrance into their lives of film actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), who has a trifurcate uterus (with 3 cervixes) that fascinates them both. Elliot successfully propositions her while she is in the gynecological stirrups, then passes her on to Beverly, forcing him to be the one to inform her that she can never have a child. After refusing to respond to her initial advances, as they involved her being spanked, Beverly later carries out a bondage fantasy of Elliot's with her (surgical clamps and rubber arterial ties have never been put to better use in a consensual sexual act) and soon becomes romantically hooked. He refuses, for the first time, to share his experience with Elliot, who yells disparagingly that "you haven't fucked her until you tell me about it". Claire discovers their charade and rejects them both. Elliot is unmoved, but Beverly is crushed, and pursues a reconciliation with her that will drive a wedge between him and his brother.
Beverly meets up with her again in a showroom of Italian furniture. As is usual in Cronenberg's films, the mise-en-scene contains essential cues to understanding the meaning of the work. The Mantle apartment is furnished in contemporary Italian style, with shades of blue predominating. These visual elements create an atmosphere of cool detachment, suggesting the repression that dominates the brothers' lives. Hence, it is quite significant that, just before seeing Claire, Beverly remarks on the austere geometry of that type of furniture, observing that it "seems so cold and empty". This indicates that he is beginning to gravitate away from his previous lifestyle. Reuniting with her, Beverly quickly becomes addicted to the tranquilizers and speed that are "an occupational hazard" of Claire's profession. His descent into madness has begun, as has his alienation from his brother.
Beverly's uncontrollable drug abuse is the first clearly neurotic symptom that he is seen to exhibit in the film. He quickly descends into psychosis, which results in a growing antipathy for his patients. Calling them "mutants", he begins his assault by utilizing a surgical retractor on a patient's vagina during an examination. Unsatisfied with the efficacy of his tools, Bev approaches an artist to produce "gynecological instruments for operating on mutant women" according to his strict specifications. In one of the most riveting scenes of the film, he tries to use one of these tools on a patient, while garbed in a scarlet surgical gown that makes him look like the Grand Inquisitor in a Spanish auto-da-fe. The tools are positively prehistoric, with this particular one resembling the claw of the winged dinosaur known as a pterodactyl. Needing to "slow things down" (as he put it), he rips the anesthesia mask from the patient and greedily inhales the gas himself. His attendants tear him away from the operating table at this point, and both brothers are banned from working at the hospital.
Beverly's motivation here is perplexing. It is not enough to say that he is simply drug-crazed, because the question then becomes why he consumes such vast quantities of drugs. It is revealing to note that Beverly first uses strong drugs as a way of escaping from a terrifying dream that he has while staying with Claire. After a particularly passionate session with her, he dreams that he and his brother are Siamese twins, joined at the chest in the manner of Chang and Eng (whose story becomes a recurring theme in the film). They are in bed with Claire, who bends down and starts tearing at the area where they are joined with her teeth. In an image echoing the process of birth, she extracts bloody innards from its interior. Beverly awakens in an absolute panic, and Claire gives him Seconol to ensure that he will not dream this again. As he was already doing speed, an endless cycle of uppers and downers commences here.
The dream is an obvious embodiment of Beverly's fears of being separated from Elliot. If one accepts the Freudian theory of dreams as wish fulfillments, the dream also suggests that Beverly desires such a separation. Ambivalence is pervasive in Beverly's responses throughout the rest of the film, and I believe that it is this ambivalence that gives rise to his psychotic assaults on his patients, as well as to his eventual murder of Elliot.
Beverly's ambivalence about women is brought out in the film's first sequence, when the two brothers, as children, are shown discussing sex and asking a neighbor girl to have sex with them in a bathtub. Elliot observes that fish can reproduce without having to come into physical contact, and Beverly says that he would prefer it that way. This ambivalence about physical contact continues throughout his life. His repressed hostility towards his brother only surfaces because of his relationship with Claire, which makes him conscious of his desire to be an independent individual.
Sigmund Freud considers conflicts of ambivalence in several places, but nowhere more clearly than in his discussion of the case of Little Hans in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. His generalized characterization is illuminating: "Here, then, we have a conflict due to ambivalence: a firmly rooted love and a no less well grounded hatred directed against one and the same person." (724) Little Hans was found to be ambivalent about his father, due to the usual Oedipal struggles. He substituted a phobia for horses, and a related inhibition which led him to refuse to go out in the street, for his (particularly strong) repressed instinctual impulse to kill his father. "In the case of little Hans, the ascertained fact that his father used to play at horses with him doubtless determined his choice of a horse as his anxiety-animal."(725)
Adapting this model to the case at hand, Beverly substituted his abhorrence of his infertile female patients for his strong desire to kill his brother. The catalyst for this can be easily traced: it was Claire, herself an infertile "mutant", who brought his conflict to the fore. He first uses the term "mutant" to describe her to her secretary, who answers the phone in her hotel suite, misleading Beverly into believing she is having an affair. When he finally kills his brother, he uses the same grotesque surgical instruments mentioned earlier, described by Bev now as being designed "for separating Siamese twins".
Beverly was also seriously ambivalent about Claire, but loved her enough to refrain from injuring her. This is quite significant in a film that is otherwise striking in its persistent misogyny. Claire Niveau is granted a fundamentally sympathetic portrayal, one of the few women in Cronenberg's films to be so treated. She is a self-sufficient businesswoman who is not reluctant to direct her own career, in spite of disagreements with her agent. Her anguish at being unable to bear a child is poignantly portrayed. It is true that she has kinky sexual desires and consumes a fair amount of drugs, but this is not presented as uncommon in the entertainment industry. Although she appears, at the beginning of the film, to be a simple hedonist, she develops a true affection for Beverly. She abandons her self-described promiscuous lifestyle, and remains adamant in her rejection of the callous Elliot. She will not, however, sacrifice her career goals to become Bev's caretaker. This is part of what attracts him to her, for he is too weak to extricate himself from Elliot without the strong emotional support she could provide.
Elliot immediately realizes Bev is in love with Claire, and is insanely jealous. He suggests that she is pursuing them only in order to support her drug habit, and he mocks her sexual prowess. Elliot finally makes an unsuccessful attempt to seduce Claire again and "restore the balance". When Claire leaves to go on location for her next film, Beverly is frantic, and ends up in Elliot's office bemoaning Claire's imagined infidelity. Because of Elliot's emotional stake in the situation, he naturally attributes Bev's degeneration exclusively to Bev's relationship with Claire. When Bev collapses and almost dies in their apartment (after an abortive attempt at a threesome with Elliot's present girlfriend), Elliot resolves to see Bev through the painful process of withdrawal. Elliot shows genuine solicitude for his brother, but primarily because of his narcissistic concern that he will die if Bev does.
All of Elliot's efforts are in vain, however, as Beverly destroys their private practice as well, injecting himself with drugs in the office rather than treating their patients. Elliot finally resorts to locking Bev in, but Bev escapes and reunites with a recently returned Claire. At this point a satisfying closure seems possible, with Bev and Claire making a life together apart from Elliot. But the bonding of the brothers is too strong, and Bev returns with tools in hand, ready to put them to use in achieving what was always their primary purpose.
After sharing several days of drug-induced stupor, Beverly kills a willing Elliot, using the same claw-like instrument he had planned to use in his last disastrous "operation". He cleans himself up and, in the only long exterior daylight shot since the opening sequence, emerges from the clinic to call Claire. Beverly's final chance at escape is made all the more attractive by this break in the claustrophobic atmosphere which dominates the film. His love for Claire, and her loving recognition of him, has made it possible for Bev to take decisive action. Yet his only hope seemed to lie in the unjust and psychotic murder of his brother, an act so horrific that his own conscience will not let him walk away from it. As in many great works of art, there is a growing sense of inevitability about the inexorable fate which the brothers face. Yet unlike in tragedy, this fate does not come about as the result of choices over which they are seen to have control. Cronenberg's fascination with twins derives, in part, from recent research that shows how remarkably similar twins who are raised in separate environments turn out to be. "It's very mysterious, but the implication of all this is that a huge amount of what we are is biologically predetermined" concludes Cronenberg. (Jaehne, 22) The actions of both brothers are depicted as resulting from such biological predestination, and not from deliberately chosen acts.
Cronenberg's explorations of determinism predate Dead Ringers. In an interview conducted by William Beard and Pier Handling in May of 1983, he stated: "I actually think that is the way the world works, that we are in fact fumbling around in the dark. Nobody's in control. There is only the appearance of control, or on the part of individual people the illusion of control." (187) In spite of this, he claims not to be fatalistic, unconvincingly urging us to "continue to wrest control from the world, from the universe, from reality, even though it might be hopeless." (188)
There is little in Dead Ringers to suggest anything but hopelessness. Neither Beverly nor Elliot can do anything about their self-destructive paths, and all of Claire's efforts are in vain (one is hard pressed to think of anything she could have done to avert the catastrophe, except maybe to refrain from offering Bev drugs in the first place). Dead Ringers is a profoundly pessimistic work, which mocks all efforts of the human will to wrest control of its future from deterministic forces. As the successor concept to the notion of tragic fate in the modern age, psychological determinism is ill-suited to generate tragic pathos, but is fine grist for the horror mill.
Cronenberg has been the subject of much auteur-style criticism, because of his obsessional treatments of sexuality, violence and repression. His interest in psychology has been made explicit in several places, as, e.g. when Ernest Jones' book The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud turns up in Rabid, and when he parodies the work of a psychotherapist in The Brood. Dead Ringers is a penetrating and insightful exploration of these themes. Precisely because his treatment here is comparatively less sensationalistic (there are no exploding heads, or penile projections coming out of women's armpits, or vaginal slits in men's stomachs, or alien parasites, or human flies), he has succeeded in making his most terrifying film. Dead Ringers is the work of a master who has come into his own, a mature creation that is profound in its depth of characterization and psychological insight.
Beard, William and Handling, Piers, "The Interview" in The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, (Toronto:General Pub. Co., 1983).
Freud, Sigmund, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety in Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 54, Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
Jaehne, Karen, "Double Trouble" in Film Comment, Vol. 24, Sept.-Oct. 1988.
Wood, Robin, Hitchcock’s Films, New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1969.