Friday, September 17, 2010

Character Distortion

Like most people do, I’ll sometimes look up people on the net who I once knew, via Google or Facebook or whatever and recently I entered the name of someone into Facebook who I knew in college a long time ago but haven’t spoken with for decades. We weren’t that close and since she’s not the sort of person with hundreds of friends on there I would feel strange trying to add her but I was still curious where she was in the world. In doing this I managed to stumble across information that this girl’s twin sister, who I met and hung out with on a few occasions, had sadly died earlier this year. This of course struck me as very sad, not only because of my distant, yet fond memories of the two of them but it just seemed absolutely horrible to imagine one twin losing another so young. And yet I still couldn’t bring myself to contact her, merely remaining uncomfortable having stumbled onto her (open) Facebook wall to learn the news of how she had recently spent the first birthday without her sister. Oddly, my recollections of them have always pretty vivid, maybe a little more than other people I slightly knew way back then and I even named characters after the pair when twins appeared in a few scripts of mine. I didn’t even know them all that well. Maybe neither one ever remembered me much at all. Maybe I knew them mostly in my own head. Maybe I still don’t even know the women I know right now. I only know that once you’ve known a few of them, and once you don’t anymore, you never quite feel the same after that. It all just strikes me as so sad.

I first saw David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS late in the afternoon on opening day back in September 1988. I had already been a fan of the director from seeing THE DEAD ZONE and THE FLY in the theater, as well as catching up with the earlier ones on video. Various articles around the time had given me an insight into the level of the man’s intelligence and I can even recall an extensive interview he gave in Fangoria (possibly with Tim Lucas) in which the director expressed genuine reticence about this film being covered in the magazine at all. That was a period when plenty such films were making claims that they were ‘nor a horror film’ when in fact they obviously were but as it turned out, in Cronenberg’s case he was absolutely right. When I left that first viewing I felt truly emotionally shattered in ways that I couldn’t even put into words, that maybe I still can’t put into words. It wasn’t a film which brought me to tears (and I’ll freely admit when that happens), it was that something about the experience seeped down into my bones, something about loneliness and everything associated with it that I couldn’t quite comprehend. Yes, folks, that’s the sort of high school kid I was. Shouldn’t I have been going to see DIE HARD for the ninth time? I can’t remember anyone else feeling the way I felt about the film at the time but, after all, it’s not the sort of film that teenagers willingly go to. I’m not sure that it’s a film that anyone goes to. Interestingly, when the film was released in that quiet month of September its “From the Director of THE FLY” ad campaign actually got it to open in first place on opening weekend and considering the defiantly uncommercial nature of the film it was selling this almost seems like a bizarre joke, maybe even one worthy of Cronenberg’s dry nature. Sure enough, by the third week it had already fallen down to fourteenth place, ending with a domestic gross of $8 million. But the critical reception was mostly solid and Jeremy Irons’ lack of an Oscar nomination for Best Actor has always rightly been seen as an embarrassment. With this work clearly placing him on another level than where he was previously, David Cronenberg would never be thought of as just a director who shouted “More blood!” on his film sets again.

For a long time after I would refer to DEAD RINGERS as one of my favorite films—BRAZIL was up there back then, BARTON FINK was too—but somewhere along the way a shift occurred as other films possibly overtook during my film education and I found myself even returning to a few other Cronenberg titles, particularly VIDEODROME, much more. Before a recent viewing it had been quite a few years since I had seen it and to be honest I was a little reticent to watch it at all. Part of this was the concern that the film wouldn’t have anywhere near the impact it once did—considering how I responded that day, there’s no way it really could—and I was almost willing to have it simply remain in memory. But part of the reason was also was that I knew what I was in for in watching it. Even though there are a few light-hearted moments in its running time it’s possible that there are few other more depressing films that I have ever seen, almost more than I really wanted to deal with at this point in time. But then I finally slipped the Criterion disc into the player because, well, I just felt like I had to. And, yes, the film didn’t work for me the way it once did. Maybe I had long since moved past the feelings of September 1988 towards other realms but it nevertheless remains quietly remarkable, a genuinely daring attempt by its maker to take themes that are associated with ‘horror’ and move them in another direction in a way that few others would ever attempt. It doesn’t matter if it’s his best film but it remains a remarkable achievement.

Identical twins Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) run a successful gynecology clinic in Toronto known as The Mantle Clinic with the quiet side habit of ‘sharing’ some of the women who are their patients. Both men immediately find themselves fascinated by their new patient, famous actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) who they determine to have an extremely rare abnormal reproductive system of three doorways. Elliot takes Claire as his lover under the guise of being Beverly and soon passes her along to Beverly since the two “share everything”. Though noticing that his personality changes make him seem “subtly schizophrenic” Claire never suspects anything is amiss though ultimately learns the truth. She takes Beverly back but soon enough has to leave on another job, having already started him on a dangerous pill addiction which only exacerbates his precarious state. As Beverly’s complete mental collapse gets progressively worse, Elliot has no choice but to join his dear brother in the experience in an attempt, as he puts it, to “get synchronized”.

Looking at it now, DEAD RINGERS (screenplay by Cronenberg and Norman Snider based on the book “Twins” by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland with elements taken from the real-life case of Stewart and Cyril Marcus) plays as a genuinely brave attempt by its director to meld the vaguely science-fiction themes he had woven through the likes of THE FLY and SCANNERS with a more mature approach, stripping everything of the truly strange drama down to basically people talking in rooms, mainly seen in close-ups. In every scene there is a particularly deliberate approach to both language and direction and, twin effects work aside, only the occasional striking visual such as the cardinal-like operating gowns to give the subtle impression that there is something unfamiliar going on. Unlike a few of Cronenberg’s other films, DEAD RINGERS is mostly set in the real world (one particularly Cronenbergian dream sequence excepted), just one that the two leads, who can never totally be apart from one another, have no real place in. The hermetically sealed universe the twins have created for themselves in their ultra-sleek apartment and cold, clean offices they work in can’t fully hold them as they fall apart within this carefully controlled frame and lose control of what they have built for themselves. It all just strikes me as so sad.

Part of the director’s conceit of neither of these twins being all good or bad may not be as revolutionary a concept as it was back then but that almost seems beside the point. The degree of the illusion works so well that within minutes it’s easy to forget how these roles are only being played by one actor—the two characters are easily differentiated in large ways and small through both performance as well as the script and even with more advanced technology today it couldn’t work any better. Just as Beverly’s good, possibly more feminine, side is slightly negated from his taking part in the deception of Claire to begin with (not to mention any that went on in the past), Elliot’s prickish side is slightly overshadowed by how absolutely devoted he is to his brother no matter what, making for characters who are not only complex but fascinating and increasingly tough to pin down—appropriate considering how there’s two of them, each slightly melding into the other’s personality. And both possibly slightly coded as gay as well in spite of their seduction of various female patients—Beverly freaks out when the possibility is suggested and Elliot’s prissy nature of always watching LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS says just about as much. Of course, that it’s tough to get a handle on either one is part of what makes the film so fascinating. If they were simpler, then the emotions would be simpler and the film would be simpler. Elliot isn’t very likable at all but about as loyal to his brother Beverly as any film character has ever been, which is definitely undeniable. And through this actress entering their lives they have to finally confront their own fear of women in dealing with how this particular one, addicted to pills as she might be, is more human, more feeling, more together than even the two of them put together. The warmth brought by both this character and actress (in itself interesting, due to Bujold’s somewhat chilly nature) is deliberately lost when the character departs the story for a stretch and she really is missed. Claire Niveau might very well be a crazy actress with numerous problems of her own, such as a somewhat masochistic nature, but she at least seems like someone you could engage with in a conversation if she was willing, unlike either of the Mantle twins. She’s a whole person.

The way that Cronenberg utilizes what were complex visual effects for the time to portray Irons as two people also reveals a lot about his approach—a few shots stand out (particularly one late in the film of the two of them moving through several different rooms) but it probably says something that watching it now I picked up on a few that never even jumped out at me years ago, maybe because I was so fascinated with what was going on between the characters (compare this to the Robert Zemeckis approach, which too often focuses on the coolness of the technology at the expense of everything else). Now that I think about it, it wasn’t just the loneliness that stayed with me about DEAD RINGERS through the years, let alone those effects, but its portrayal of intimacy as well, undeniable whether it’s the two versions of Irons in close discussion or one particular scene with Bujold, heartbreaking when she says how never being able to have a child means that she’ll “never have been a woman at all, just a girl”. Those two conflicting feelings take hold throughout, emphasized through Howard Shore’s score which is coldly heartbreaking down to its very essence. The intimacy also extends to the very carefully controlled coverage all through with even scenes in large restaurants staying focused on the few characters, to the point that when a bit player gets such a close-up at one point it feels like some sort of violation or error on Cronenberg’s part.

But right now I’m also wondering to what extent the film is about that fear of women, looking at them as something other—certainly one particular examination scene that anyone who’s seen the film will remember takes the concept of discomfort to a whole new level (this will certainly never be thought of as a Friday night date movie). Elliot even refers to the “Mantle Brothers Saga” at one point as if he is attempting to create his own narrative, his own myth between him and his brother, with every woman who stumbles into things as some sort of bit character for them to utilize in their story however they wish. Beverly Mantle’s ultimate experiment in creating his torture device-like “Surgical Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women” makes it clear that to him (if not to both brothers) all women are mutants, experiments for each of them to work on. That his designs are ultimately co-opted into a work of art is ironic considering how we’re told he’s “not into art” and maybe DEAD RINGERS is, among other things, about the crashing together of art and science in the mind (indeed, both Beverly Mantle and artist Anders Wolleck who design the pieces work in front of audiences—Beverly for an operating room theater as Elliot narrates and Wolleck does it as ‘part of his show’) and if only the Mantle twins had focused their energies in some other way, if they had been able to figure out how to each be one person, they could even have been artists. If properly melded together, they could even have become David Cronenberg.

Unlike a few of his other more “genre” films not everything about DEAD RINGERS has aged in ideal fashion and in certain ways I was slightly expecting that, though it should be said that when the rest of the film is as good as this one, small pieces that don’t quite fit do have a tendency to stick out. The seeds of Jeremy Irons’ later Boris Karloff-style hamminess are sometimes evident, brilliant as he is, and the brief stabs at humor related to the needs of the female patients with MURDER SHE WROTE-style shoulder pads don’t play as well as the more finely-drawn satire in other Cronenberg films. (As far as dry humor goes, one clever touch is the slightly racist comment to an Asian pharmacist who Elliot calls by the wrong name that “I always get you confused.”) It also feels like Beverly goes off the deep end just a little too abruptly when Claire departs and in this strangely alternate world of Cronenbergian language that part of their downfall comes from pill addiction, even if it does have basis in the real-life case of the Marcus twins, feels a little too normal, almost too pat an explanation for the complexity of what is found within the director’s schism. Beverly’s ultimate operating room breakdown is maybe slightly hurt in how you’d think someone would have noticed his state by then but it’s genuinely powerful nevertheless, a harrowing portrayal of a mental collapse right in front of us and that’s what sticks in the brain long after the film has ended.

It probably says something that while not technically an original (it is officially based on a book, after all, though that seems to be more for legal purposes than anything, with both works essentially inspired by the original case) after the release of this film it was over a decade until Cronenberg attempted an original screenplay again, with the films in between being straight adaptations as well as one (the unfortunate M. BUTTERFLY, which reunited him with Irons) that he didn’t even write. And I would go further to say that for well over a decade some of the films that followed this one (NAKED LUNCH, CRASH, EXISTENZ, SPIDER) come off as more ‘nice, little movies’ in comparison with the genuinely harrowing mental depths of DEAD RINGERS. A strange label to give a few of these titles with their own twisted elements but there is the feel that with this film the director went as far as he could go with his thematic concerns maybe making it the ultimate David Cronenberg film for all time. It’s the last of several films during the 80s in which his protagonist(s) come to an unfortunate, if inevitable, end and as admirable as it was for him to go against the norm in that decade it’s possible that maybe after this one, which approaches a level of emotional devastation that the others really only hint at, he had said all he need to say.

There’s no avoiding how extraordinary Irons is in this performance and it would be too easy to simply lay on the adjectives. I’ll just say that rarely is there such a perfect melding (there’s that word again) between director, star and material as there is here and the ultimate effect it gives off plays as if the actor understands this material more than could possibly be put into words. It says something that when Irons won the Oscar he deserved for this film several years later for REVERSAL OF FORTUNE he made it a point to thank David Cronenberg. I can distinctly remember applause occurring at this moment as if the audience knew exactly what he was talking about. Bujold is greatly affecting as well bringing a particularly real level of closeness to her scenes with Irons, making the odd grounding she gives to things missed when she departs for a little while. Much of the film keeps with these three characters but Heidi von Palleske makes a strong impression as Cary, a sort-of girlfriend of Elliot’s (“I didn’t realize you two were so friendly.” “We’re not so friendly.”) whose place in the screenplay is never quite defined—she’s barely introduced, coming off as something as an appendage then she reveals more brains and intuitiveness than other films probably would have bothered with such a minor character. Stephen Lack, star of Cronenberg’s SCANNERS, turns up in a brief but crucial appearance as artist Anders Wolleck and Jill Hennessy, alongside sister Jacqueline, makes her film debut as one of a pair of twin hookers ordered up by Elliot.

DEAD RINGERS stays with me, just like the memory of knowing those twin girls at college long ago, just like the memory of other girls I can think of. If you have some sort of relationship with a woman where things get cut off there’s going to be a hole, which I suppose is what I was thinking more than anything as Beverly contemplated losing Claire. I suppose that even in his madness, I understood. Losing one of those girls, even the ones you know casually, can sometimes hurt and you spend hours, days, weeks, years wishing you could talk to her again. By now, that girl who tragically lost her sister several months back has drifted off into my past just like numerous others I once knew. But those women linger in my brain, staying with me, just like the most powerful elements of DEAD RINGERS, one of the most coldly emotional films I’ve ever seen, continue to stay with me no matter how many years go between viewings. Right now, I’m not even sure if I ever want to see it again. I know that I’ll never be able to shake it.


Chris said...

I think you nail it with your comment about this being one of Cronenberg's most emotionally devastating films - although it's the film of his I've seen the least number of times, it's the one that lingers the most in mind.

No need to say it but, one again: just a wonderful, illuminating post.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Nah, it's appreciated that you say it. It always is. Thanks.

It definitely lingers, although I kind of want to sit down with one of his other films. Hmm, I haven't seen VIDEODROME for a few months by now.