Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Dead Ringers (1988)

*This post is a part of The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

There are, it seems, two distinct periods in David Cronenberg's career: the horror schlockmeister, and the director of surreal thrillers. This isn't necessarily to say that he's completely changed; all of his films show some degree of interest in "perverted" psychologies. Nor is it to say that all of his films fit neatly into either of those categories; Naked Lunch and Cosmopolis, to name two examples, seem to confound all notions of genre (which is part of what makes them equally fascinating and frustrating). But Cronenberg is a master at creating films that disorient and disturb, asking the audience to consider things that we may not want to.

Dead Ringers, this week's selection for Hit Me, straddles the line between the two Cronenbergs as well. The film follows twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantel (both played by Jeremy Irons) who have established themselves as visionaries in the field. However, the arrival of actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) - and her trifurcated womb - lead them into a downward spiral of drugs and madness.

That trifurcated womb, it turns out, is what fascinates Bev and Elli, and what fascinates Cronenberg as well. The film is stacked with the twins' erotic obsessions: with the womb, with gynecological instruments, and especially with their "twinness." Cronenberg, with help from director of photography Peter Suschitzky (a frequent Cronenberg collaborator who also lensed The Empire Strikes Back and The Rocky Horror Picture Show), let these obsessions permeate every frame of the film, either through the visuals or through the innuendo-laced dialogue.

For example, check out the first scene in their shared, luxurious apartment. Elliot, the charming one and the public face of the duo (he does most of their speaking engagements), is shown against the backdrop of their spacious apartment:

Bev, on the other hand, is the shy, bookish one; he works in their clinic and is the brain behind most of their accomplishments. He's seen more in the foreground, in his study, wearing more casual clothes than Elli's dapper suits:

This motif is repeated throughout the film - Elli shown at a distance, Bev shown in close-up. It's a necessary distinction, since the twins love to swap places and pretend to be one another. There's a very strong sexual tension between these two - an impressive facet of Irons' performance - and they both let their kinks out with Claire, much to her eventual disgust. There's plenty to unpack in their fixation on each other and disturbing need to "separate," psychologically conjoined and needing to be autonomous, especially as Bev further spirals out of control.

The film's psychological focus, though, leads to my choice for Best Shot:

He's crouched in the fetal position, as if he's ready to return to the womb and escape the pressures of the world (Dr. Freud would certainly agree). But given his interest in Claire's womb, it may not be simply about comfort: the womb is arousing, a place of sexual satisfaction for him. Claire's drugs are destroying him, but so is her "mutant" womb, disrupting his notion of what's "normal." And Cronenberg stages it masterfully.

Other great shots:

Dead Ringers was Cronenberg's follow-up to The Fly, which was embarrassingly rich with grotesque body horror. This film was more psychological, but a dream sequence about Bev and Elli being physically conjoined shows Cronenberg couldn't help himself.

I love how the surgical gowns look like robes, turning the surgery into a religious ritual. The red, in particular, makes it a really powerful image.

The new instruments Bev has made are perfectly grotesque phalluses, aren't they?

A perfect distillation of the film's theme: sexual passion juxtaposed with clinical instruments.

PS Nathaniel chose this film this week in recognition of Nick Davis' (of Nick's Flick Picks) new book, The Desiring Image: Gilles Deleuze and Contemporary Queer Cinema. I've just started reading it, and have had a difficult time putting it down. It's terrific.


NicksFlickPicks said...

Thanks for the nice compliment about the book, Jason! I was excited to see which shots you picked and enjoyed hearing your thoughts. Three of your images are actually in my chapter about DR, so we've clearly got similar tastes. Cheers!

Jason H. said...

NicksFlickPicks - Thanks! I hadn't even realized we'd chosen the same shots until you pointed it out, but then again, I was waiting until after writing my post before I read your chapter. Excellent!