For a director long infested with and invested in deep-seated anxieties about the relationship between perturbed men and the women they feel entitled to and mortified about, Dead Ringers reflects David Cronenberg simultaneously at his most hesitant and exploratory, both empowered over his subject and emasculated by it. On “empowered”, Dead Ringers is the product of significant confidence, the director emboldened by the success of his prior film The Fly, which was the inflection point between his gutter-limned, filthy body horror films and his more intellectually-charged Hollywood productions drawing on blood veins of Shakespearean tragedy and classical literature.
At the same time, Dead Ringers’ attitudes toward sex lack the primal sensibilities of his earlier films. It feels evolved, civilized, and in some small way, sadly domesticated, like it needs to justify itself by being about something rather than simply being something. As good as Dead Ringers is, it also spends the entire film looking over its shoulder just to make sure it isn’t being followed by the specter of Cronenberg’s more brutal earlier exploitation films, themselves infused with the confidence to tackle issues without so obviously TACKLING ISSUES. Although Cronenberg obviously feels liberated to dissect fanatically adult issues, he also feels too cautious and manicured in his approach to really vivisect sexual competition and power at the root and explore the innards of the male ego in all their writhing, bloody anti-glory. It’s not exactly timid, but the film suffers from ruminations that only ever bore half-way into the skull.
Not that the film doesn’t puncture the right veins or intercept the tangled arteries of the male mind. Always broaching society’s unmentionables with his peculiar combination of succulent hedonism and witchy chilliness, Cronenberg’s story of Beverly and Eliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) – two famous doctor twins who wine and dine the same woman, Claire (Genevieve Bujold), only to go at each other’s throats over her – cuts its own swath through the vines of psychosexual desire and all that other horror director thematic catnip. With one twin more libidinous and carnally abrasive and the other obviously more effeminate and humanistic, the usual schizophrenic shenanigans are on the brain for Cronenberg’s film, both characters essentially one side of the disturbed male mind losing its sanity without women to play with. But, to say the least for him, Cronenberg avoids the artificial undergrad-level “which reality is reality, man” hysteria and narrative contrivance so numbingly over-bearing in many films on the subject of reality, mental instability, and all their permutations (such as Cronenberg’s later existenz). Instead, Cronenberg brandishes icy daggers and a certain macabre wit rather than a sledgehammer as he opens up the brain cavity of the modern male and stirs around the squalor of sexual possession and identity. So the restraint he exhibits here isn’t entirely uncalled for, nor is it unappreciated.
Plus, restraint can wreak its own kind of havoc when it feels legitimately frigid rather than merely prestige-baiting. Reflecting Cronenberg’s unique dialectic of filming works that are both contraceptive and aphrodisiac, the film’s most devious imagery feels a little like Bava twisting the knife into Kubrick. On its own, the nearly fluorescent, corporeal red medicinal garb the doctors wear like parasites sucking up all the blood from the antiseptic spine-chill of a grey laboratory is enough to seduce you and sabotage your empathy for the human race all at once.
Slips aside, Dead Ringers also deserves credit for (mostly) avoiding the obvious Freudian head-trip readings that could disfigure its protagonists with homophobic tints, although the film does succumb once or twice to what it by its own definition slanders as “bullshit psychoanalysis”. Even when it does lose its mind to its own mind, though, Cronenberg’s readings on male desire twist the screw of the homophobic lens considerably. If anything, Dead Ringers is considerably more about male competition for women-objects than the homoerotic misgivings of the central characters. The twins’ initial habit of playing with Claire by switching bodies on her without telling her are rooted in a simultaneous contempt toward and curiosity about women as objects and a kind of perverse gamesmanship with each other that finds the female body (and psyche) as the ultimate battleground for a brotherly war of masculine one-ups-man-ship. (This makes the film a provocative Hitchcock reading that, unlike Hitch, can be homosocial without being homophobic). Plus, any revelation that the two characters really care more for one another than any woman is, in light of the film’s Persona-vibes, much more a commentary on men in love with themselves or various parts of themselves (deviant because of self-obsession and social antipathy) rather than in love with other men (deviant because of homosexuality).
For my money, though, Dead Ringers is also the beginning of a tapering off for the iconoclastic Cronenberg as his films became less fascinated with exploring film craft, formal breakage, and visual disintegration and more with perverting and disobeying classical semiotic principles. Or rather, the point at which his films shifted from mettle-testers of shifting visual and filmic energies – temporally-adventurous experiences – and toward somewhat over-scripted purveyors of “ideas”. Part of it is simply that confidence energized him to use the totems of pseudo-intelligence of our times – symbols – so that actually exploring coarse and beautifully in-the-moment crests of energy were replaced with comparatively flat symbols and signs (most obviously, rubber tubing and medical stirrups as symbols of sexual desire undermined by fear, anger, bitterness, and medical isolation). They sound “clever”, but only because they conform to what Susan Sontag pejoratively referred to as “ideas” – concepts – rather than sensibilities, energies, attitudes of disruption and disobedience and sexual play (a la Shivers) that begin with quasi-symbols (phallic slugs) and then embroil those symbols in such filmmaking pandemonium that our initial assumptions about them are prey to the filmmaker’s catharctic and confused energy at the time of filming. Dead Ringers, in contrast, feels very much like a work that was complete in the head before it even began in the camera’s eye.
More bluntly, Dead Ringers is a more overtly “planned” work, a film where every image seems to have been judiciously prepossessed beforehand rather than psychosomatically felt. Rather than a duel of throbbing pleasure and pain, we have a battle of ideas. Maybe I’m in the wrong, but while Shivers has the grotty aplomb of a malevolent force of nature, a film that exceeds or cannot be codified by an argument, a film being shocked to life before our eyes with cackling glee, Dead Ringers has the slightly musty vibe of something pre-conceived on the operating table. Lest I overstate myself: Dead Ringers is a thoughtful film, but the acid coursing through Cronenberg’s brains is more solidified than usual, less willing to follow its own impulses. Much as I appreciate the thought of Cronenberg testing out a Persona-riff for dudes, the conclusion that killing one part of your being ultimately exsanguinates the other does not exactly match Bergman’s improbably adventurous comparison of brain-continuity with cinema-continuity. Comparatively, Cronenberg’s film seems so committed to its own thesis that it has no room to explore cinema at all. In relation to a film like Shivers that feels and senses rather than thinks, Dead Ringers is distinctly the lesser of two evils, a film that is all-but foaming at the mouth to be explained rather than experienced like Shivers, which throws explanation out the window. This is a good film, but when we’re talking Cronenberg evil, then lesser is, well, lesser. Where is the mischief in its soul?