Laying out a series of instruments that look more like makeshift torture items than medical tools, Beverley Mantle (Jeremy Irons) presents his treasure trove of gynecological “objects.” Deluded by love and consumed by paranoia, he’s convinced that many of his patients have deformed genitalia. Beverley has an identical twin brother who has long been the alpha in the relationship, and while the former appears insecure and withdrawn, brother Elliot beholds a dashing and confident presence. They not only are indistinguishable but share the same job (and eventually the same woman). This is Dead Ringers, David Cronenberg’s cold, clinical and horrific 1988 body horror.
Cronenberg’s films have been unabashedly horrified by the primitive power of the human form. From the beginning of his career up to the modern day, the female body serves as the playground of nightmarish scenarios. Rather than stigmatizing a woman’s form, however, Cronenberg uses body horror as a means of exploring the violence of desire in an unforgiving modern world.
An underrated aspect of Cronenberg’s oeuvre allows for architecture to inform the world in which we live. In this early stage of his career, while the director was still working primarily in Canada, he favoured sleek modernism. While more apparent in works shot in Montreal (Rabid and Shivers) — where fresh off Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics, the cold concrete and inorganic shapes of modernist reigned — the style does sneak into Dead Ringers. Toronto takes the place of Montreal, presenting a city cast in stale “newness.” The generic qualities of the city, matched with the sleek reflective symmetry of interiors, embolden the dystopian qualities of the film. The soft spirals of staircases (that seem crafted by computers rather than humans) contrast with the imagined imperfection of the female form. Both evoke different visions of a rose, suggesting different ideals of beauty.
The unravelling of this inorganic reality crumbles as Beverley loses touch with logic, leading up to a destruction of their futuristic clinic. The natural world’s chaotic impermanence sends Beverley off the edge, and this contrast between mechanical and natural is further exemplified in the gynecological tools. They are a nightmarish hybrid of the human form and artificial engineering, as Beverley’s delusion that nearly all women are exhibiting abnormalities is rooted in a series of biological and socio-cultural norms. Beverley’s fears are rooted in dysmorphophobia (fear of physical deformities), tied to tribal necessity and exhibited xenophobia and violence. His thoughts are also tied to the fear of deformed infants, likely connected to Beverley’s own condition as an identical twin.
The force of superstition cast on Beverley and Elliot’s lives by their identical nature represents an accidental, perfect moment in an imperfect world. Without abandoning the clinical environment, Cronenberg draws on the myths of Janus and the miracles of the Satyricon. Dead Ringers might as well be the tale of gods trapped in the mortal coil, with Elliot and Beverley exemplifying unnatural abilities that cast them in a higher light. They are trapped by their human bodies, however, doomed to the conditions of our animal nature.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.