Dead Ringers (1988) marks my fifth David Cronenberg experience - and with this provocative, fascinating film he solidifies his status as one of my favourite English-language directors of recent years. I appreciate how beneficial this viewing proved for my understanding of his filmography - only now have I grasped just how intensely psychological Cronenberg's work is. His films seem to be terrorized by the inner demons of his characters, and the themes of sex, technology and violence that he so favours assume a more emotionally potent dimension as a result.
In this particular film, Cronenberg chooses to personify the concepts of yin and yang with a pair of identical twins. Their intense fraternal bond reaches far beyond the platonic - when Beverly (the yin to his brother Eliot's yang, at least initially) angrily cries out: "Do you think I'm gay or something?" after the most minor of provocations, he alludes towards deeply repressed homosexual tendencies that manifest themselves most clearly with the perverse sexual co-dependency that he shares with his brother. By casually exchanging one another's women, the Mantle twins find a successful outlet for their mutual desires. Their professional status (as gynaecologists) intertwines with their subconsciousness: the objectivity with which they examine the vagina during the everyday allows them to eschew the remnants of their heterosexual attraction to it. The female genitalia's socially-sanctioned purpose is therefore displaced as the brothers reclassify it to the role of an illicit harbour for their most intimate physical connection. The Mantle twins don't fuck women at all, they simply use them to fuck each other.
When the sensual and ever-astute Claire begins to figure out their ruse, the brothers' tenuous harmony is understandably thrown into chaos. Her confrontations trigger a psychosexual rupture within Beverly's fragile state of mind, leading to an attempted fission of the unique Mantle union - which in turn provokes Elliot's own slide into mental disarray. Finally, the pair are forced to confront their sexual fears and urges - and, with Cronenberg's brilliantly grotesque visualizations in tow, so too is the audience. Beverly may be externally devoted to her, but he subconsciously continues to view Claire as an object or, more specifically, a "mutant". A lifetime of ignorance regarding their misuse has birthed a vagina that fights back with reason. Ironically, the doctors cannot reciprocate the intellectual war, and respond only with the undercurrents of violence that have lurked ominously since the film's opening credits. "The women's bodies are all wrong!", says Beverly, as he wields the newly-distorted blades and instruments that constitute his new arsenal for gynaecological warfare. In misplacing the blame for his predicament he merely ignores his own figurative mutations, and thus entrenches himself further within the claustrophobic psychosexuality that will destroy the Mantle entity.
Sex has always been the most intriguing vertebra in the backbone of Cronenberg's oeuvre. The director's films consistently deconstruct and then reconstruct the concepts of sexuality and desire. Dead Ringers continues in this vain, as it reconceptualizes our perceptions of bondage gear to include an absolutely bizarre (but incredibly hot) amalgam of medical tubes and scissors. And how easy is it to dismiss the inherently sexual instruments of "gynaecological warfare" cited in the previous paragraph? Their sharp, steely disfigurements endow them with the means to horrify, but the camera's decision to fetishize the objects draws attention to their penetrative potential. Sex and violence share an uneasy yet scintillating co-existence in Cronenberg's world of malevolent perversity where human survival exists in perpetual limbo.
Cronenberg films his subjects with clinical precision to conserve this sense of unease: cool, icy whites and blues dominate the colour palette, rendering the eventual bursts of red frighteningly inevitable. Yet in spite of this cold treatment, one never feels that he has anything less than the utmost sympathy for the damaged souls at the heart of his film. Dead Ringers may not be its director's finest effort (from what I've seen, Crash takes that title), and it may not even be the best 1980s flick about disturbed male twins (an honour that must surely be afforded to Peter Greenaway's visually resplendent diatribe against Thatcherite Britain, A Zed & Two Noughts), but this is nevertheless a work of surprisingly moving beauty. I'm finding that Cronenberg's most interesting films deal with a sort of reverse spritiualism, whereby scientific and technological forces are engaged in an everlasting battle to denigrate the human spirit. Sure, there's blood, there's gore and there's a helluva lotta sex, but the director's indulgences are the inevitable results of his explosive examinations. In their own way, films like Dead Ringers and Crash strike me as cinematic hymns for the lost souls of postmodern society - and that surely makes David Cronenberg one of the most justifiably humane directors working in the medium today?