Tuesday, April 3, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On - At the Movies #36 - Dead Ringers

Dead Ringers (1988, dir. David Cronenberg)

Dead Ringers is the linchpin film in director David Cronenberg’s career, and it’s definitely a film firmly in the “not for everyone” category. It’s a film about identical twin gynecologists who spiral downward into drug addiction, an idea so disturbing and odd that of course it had to come from the fertile mind that had previously created the completely off-the-wall (and brilliant) horror/sci-fi film Videodrome. But of course it is in fact so strange an idea that the film is actually based in reality, modeled on a book written about a pair of twin gynecologists found dead in their Manhattan apartment, apparently from drug withdrawal symptoms. Right there you ought to know if this is a film for you or not. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself….

Canadian writer/director David Cronenberg spent the 1970’s and early 80’s earning his nickname of “The Baron of Blood,” working largely as a genre filmmaker in the horror and science fiction realms, though there was always something different about his films. Slow moving and strange by horror standards, creepily organic, and using special effects to complement his story and characters, not as the centerpiece, Cronenberg’s films were decidedly out of step with the era that saw the rise of the slasher film. After three films exploring unsettling body horror all marked by startling and gory violence and a bleak outlook (though always leavened by Cronenberg’s dark, deadpan sense of humor) he took a turn, creating first an auto-racing film and then Scanners, a film about battles within subdivisions of a group of telepaths most notorious for a graphically realistic image of an exploding head in its first scene. But that gives the wrong idea of the film, which spends most of its time moving around with its characters, having them talk and explore their powers and their relationships to each other, rather than the more dazzling and entertaining violence of a similar film like Brian DePalma’s The Fury. Then came Videodrome, a film equal parts early Cronenberg and Marshall McLuhan, positing ideas about a society filled with intellectual malaise and whose moral girding is being rotted by television, featuring such hallucinatory imagery as televisions that breathe, pulse and spill out viscera, a gun taking root in James Woods’ arm, and a hideous, vein-covered video cassette being inserted into a victim’s stomach. The film’s craft and uniqueness won it a new group of admirers outside of Cronenberg’s early cult and opened up new possibilities for him. It was also called by Roger Ebert “one of the least entertaining films ever made.” Oh well, I guess there’s no pleasing everybody. He quickly moved to bigger budget projects – a grim, sad adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, featuring a stellar performance from Christopher Walken, and an update of the 1950’s classic The Fly, which again used graphic body horror grounded in strong performances by leads Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. It also brought Cronenberg to the attention of the Academy Awards, albeit winning for a makeup award rather than its performances, where Goldblum’s manic-depressive scientist/fly went unnoticed in favor of William Hurt (who would 20 years later be nominated for a supporting role under Cronenberg for A History of Violence).
Cronenberg initially wanted Hurt for the lead role(s) as the twins in Dead Ringers, but Hurt was unavailable, and so he turned to Jeremy Irons, whose performance as the Mantle twins is so pitch-perfect that I can’t imagine Hurt having done work this good. The special effects are seamless – after a while you’ll simply give up trying to note how the computer-tracked camera shots have split Beverly and Elliot Mantle and you simply accept Irons as twins, not as one actor. It’s said that Irons’ Academy Award win for Reversal of Fortune the next year was really an award for this role since it wouldn’t have been quite acceptable for the Academy to offer him a statue for the unsettling melancholy on display here.
I’d talk more about plot here, except that I think having already said that it is “a film about identical twin gynecologists who spiral downward into drug addiction” tells you pretty much all you need to know. There is, of course another element at play here, in the form of Genvieve Bujold, as an actress who finds her way into the twins’ lives, falling in love with Beverly and not Elliot and inadvertently driving a wedge between them that separates them in a way they’ve never experienced before. And as the twins descend into madness and addiction, the film’s clinical cleanliness slowly deteriorates as well, with the cool, dimly lit interiors slowly becoming more disordered, lit with noir-like lines of light cutting through the dark. It’s a virtuoso performance by everyone involved, not just Irons, and special props need to be paid to Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky – who began collaborating with Cronenberg here and has worked on every film since then with him – but also to the set designers and costumers who have helped put this darkly disturbing vision on film.
Since Dead Ringers, which netted Cronenberg a slew of nominations from various artistic circles and made it impossible for “real” film critics to dismiss his visions as merely the work of a talented horror hack, his films have gone on to receive three Palme D’or nominations from the Cannes film festival; he’s received the prestigious Cannes Golden Coach award given from directors (and directors only) to fellow
directors to honor their consistent vision; he’s directed Viggo Mortenson to two Golden Globe nominations and both Mortenson and William Hurt to one from the Academy (and they should also have taken notice of Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant portrayal of the title character in Spider); he’s successfully adapted three supposedly unfilmable novels (Naked Lunch, Spider, and Crash – not the 2004 Oscar-winner, but the bizarre 1996 drama); his latest film, the excellent A Dangerous Method, explores the relationships and rifts between Sigmund Freud (Mortenson), his protégée Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and the brilliant patient (and later analyst) Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley); and his next project is another “unadaptable” interior journey of a book, Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. Not too bad for the former Baron of Blood. But Dead Ringers is where the early promise gave way to the later fulfillment of his filmmaking genius; where his bodies in revolt gave way to his minds in revolt; where his exploration of the carnal and the cerebral was formalized and moved forward. It’s an ingenious piece of work, but definitely not for everybody. But if it’s your kind of thing, he’s rarely, if ever, been better.

- Patrick Brown

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