****/**** Image B- Sound D Extras B
starring Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Heidi Von Palleske, Stephen Lack
written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider, based on the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland
directed by David Cronenberg
by Bryant Frazer Dead Ringers begins and ends extraordinarily, with the soft swelling of Howard Shore's title music. It starts with the slow emergence of strings, which are eventually layered with harp and woodwinds, mining uncommon veins of sadness in a major key. Set against on-screen illustrations of an anatomical and explicitly gynecological nature, the music serves the obvious function of undercutting the film's pointedly unsettling subject matter with unalloyed lyricism. It's like a statement of purpose. But Shore's melody goes farther than that, somehow. It's remarkably haunting, for one thing--the theme is one of the most potent sensory triggers I know, instantly evoking both beauty and despair. Just the first four bars are enough to set me weeping. And it's penetrating. More than elegiac, it's specifically regretful, and bittersweet. According to Royal S. Brown's liner notes on the first CD release of the movie's score, the director knew it right away. "That's suicide music," Cronenberg told Shore when he first heard the theme. "You've got it."
Dead Ringers is, unavoidably, a film about suicide, though it's about other things, too: brotherly devotion, ego, art, and misogyny. Inspired by the true story of New York siblings Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who were found dead in the bachelor pad they shared on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it's serious like a cancer diagnosis, but it's also quite funny, rich in wry detail, and brimming with the outrageousness of its premise. The Marcuses were not just brothers, but twins; and they were not just doctors, but gynecologists. As their story unfolded in the press, allegations of medical malfeasance and drug abuse came to light. Cronenberg couldn't resist the weirdness of the whole affair, and had been trying to give it the cinematic treatment since the early-1980s. He got the thing funded on a low budget, with some difficulty ("Do they have to be gynecologists?" he was asked, repeatedly), and ended up with an unlikely triumph--a sensitive, trenchant, troubling psychological drama with an emotional resonance that makes it probably his best film.
In Cronenberg's version of the story, Beverly and Eliot Mantle, both portrayed by Jeremy Irons, are prize-winning stars in the OB/GYN firmament. The two men complement each other: Elliot is the smug, worldly extrovert who's bad with patients but handles high-level business deals, while Beverly is the shy, well-meaning introvert who does the grunt work. Mostly, Elliot shows up in public to collect accolades, and Beverly puts in time with patients on the exam table. But they trade places occasionally, as when one hands off an exam to the other midway through without letting the patient know she's been switched up. Or when pussy-hound Elliot passes a sexual conquest onto his shyer brother. Renowned actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) figures this out too late, after both brothers have had in her in bed as well as in stirrups. Niveau thinks this is a real dirtbag move, but lucky for sad, sensitive Bev, she holds asshole Elliot most accountable for the deception. In time, she rekindles her relationship with Beverly, driving a wedge between the two brothers--a failed attempt at psychological separation surgery that ends up destroying them both.
So let's be clear--the Mantle brothers are shits. They are physicians who barely tolerate their patients ("I slave over the hot snatches and Elliot makes the speeches," a very drunk Beverly snarls from a podium at one point) and treat women in general poorly. There's a funny opening flashback to 1954 where the Mantles, as children, converse about the nature of sex and conclude that if humans lived underwater, they would be able to procreate without touching women at all. "Raffaella," Elliot (it has to be Elliot) asks a neighbour girl, "will you have sex with us in our bathtub? It's an experiment." And Raffaella responds, "Fuck off, you freaks." It's a funny exchange in a funny scene, but it sets up the Mantles' characters. They see women as subjects for observation and study, and sometimes as tools for the generation of pleasure, but they do not see them as equals (nor do they seem to find them particularly beautiful), and they regard female companionship as, while certainly desirable, a poor substitute for the relationship they share. "You haven't fucked Claire Niveau until you tell me about it," Elliot complains at one point, when his brother refuses to kiss and tell. It does eventually turn out that Bev's solo relationship with Claire is unsustainable. The idea is that sexual love--as opposed to love without sex, which the brothers share, or sex without love, which Elliot indulges in with his own girlfriend, a cool redhead named Cary (Heidi Von Palleske)--is only psychologically sustainable to the Mantle twins in the context of a threesome. Elliot approaches Claire at one point to suggest, apparently selflessly, that "if you liked us both in the same way, it might make things easier," an overture she immediately shuts down. And he tries to get his brother interested in Cary, who seems game, but Beverly is having none of it. He is well and truly smitten with Claire.
To embody the Mantle twins, Irons employed a physical strategy called the Alexander Technique to influence his posture and coordination, putting just enough body English into his performance to help audiences tell the two brothers apart--or to confuse the issue, as required by the scene. He was abetted by cutting-edge motion-control camera techniques and optical-printing effects that "twinned" him on screen, allowing him to engage in conversation with himself in the same frame. Cronenberg, though, was careful not to overdo it: the effect is never present to draw attention to itself and employed only a handful of times, in sequences where a two-shot of the brothers would be a logical directorial choice. The real special effect, of course, is what Irons does with his face to realize the Mantles. Dead Ringers doesn't work if Bev, in particular, isn't absolutely convincing as a real human being, because the audience needs to be able to understand why someone might care for him deeply in spite of his misdeeds. Somehow, Irons makes Elliot's features comparatively stern, largely unmoving, and more angular than Beverly's. His eyes are sharper, the lines of his jaw more pronounced. He's a devilishly-handsome bullshit artist. Beverly's face, meanwhile, is his emotional state writ large. He blinks, he stammers, his lips tremble. When Claire confronts Bev and his brother, together, about their betrayal of her trust, he's devastated, weeping tears that can't be distinguished from the remnants of the drink thrown in his face moments before. He's upset in the way a child is upset at being called on the carpet for a transgression he doesn't fully understand. And yet somehow at this moment, every time I watch the film, my heart opens to him. It's one of the very finest performances I know. Although Dead Ringers isn't exactly a horror movie, thanks to Irons it's rich with insight and laden with the sort of empathy that has always been the purview of the genre: sympathy for the monster.
Like so much of Cronenberg's work, Dead Ringers has come under fire for the alleged crime of misogyny. Some of that criticism is from viewers who don't appreciate that misogyny is one of Cronenberg's chosen subjects. Specifically, he believes that Elliot's toxic, alpha-male influence has corrupted Bev. (Claire falls for the sweet and pitiful Beverly and believes in his potential even though she remains largely repulsed by Elliot.) Cronenberg has also vividly imagined the feelings women must have as they sit back with their legs in stirrups while a man sticks his face in there, divining their futures based on what he sees. That's not really a departure for him, either: his brand of horror has exploited the fears of women as readily as it does the fears of men--think of the bathtub scene in Shivers, where Barbara Steele is penetrated by a sex slug, or the mutation of Marilyn Chambers in Rabid--and Dead Ringers is surely meant as an exposé of the abusive potential of male patriarchal power rather than an exploitation of it. Still, I don't have an overarching issue with feminist critiques of the film. For example, it's also true of Dead Ringers that Claire is an underwritten love interest with a convenient streak of masochism. She reacts with anger, yes, to what amounts to a rape; at the same time, it's not a deal-breaker for her--fortunately, since Bev's character arc doesn't work unless she's around long enough to offer him the pills that accelerate his decline. Bujold is excellent in the role, conveying a wounded vulnerability beneath her tough talk, and she brings a welcome vigour to the picture's first half. I just wish Cronenberg had shown more interest in what she's thinking later on.
Otherwise, Dead Ringers is pretty much perfectly calibrated from start to finish. Cronenberg has tamped down his usual zeal for body horror, restricting the prosthetics to a single dream sequence in which Bev imagines his body connected to Elliot's by a thick band of flesh. The scarier elements have to do with Beverly's descent into drug addiction and the madness that becomes his new companion there. In the first sign that something is going badly wrong inside Beverly's head, he hurts a patient by using the wrong tool in the examining room and ignores her cries. Confronted by his horrified brother, Bev insists there was no problem with his technique. "The woman's body was all wrong," he says. The arrogance is fed by the drugs, but the matter-of-fact assertion of privilege is chilling. Later, he visits a local artist (Stephen Lack, from Cronenberg's Scanners) to commission a series of frightening-looking "gynecological instruments for working on mutant women" in surgical steel. He debuts them unexpectedly during an operation, to the horror of the assembled nurses. The wide eyes and darting gazes of the nurses and surgical techs, which Cronenberg cuts between in close-up, are more emphatic and human than almost any other reaction in the entire film. Adding to the scene's effectiveness is the production design, which has the operating room offset by blood-red sheets and scrubs draped over Bev and the others in a way that evokes nothing other than a college of cardinals. If medicine is a religious calling, then what Dr. Mantle is doing here is surely blasphemy. Compare to the scenes taking place in the Mantles' apartment, bathed in cool blue colours, perhaps alluding to the wished-for underwater environment of the movie's prologue. As far as exteriors go, there are hardly any at all. It's a story confined almost entirely to interiors, suggesting the Mantles' introversion and eventual retreat from all outside influences.
Eventually the situation grows so desperate, and Beverly's state so lamentable, that the brothers' once-unassailable bond is fragile and pathetic. It's impossible for them to live happily together and unthinkable for them to be apart. Have you ever felt genuinely helpless with despair and terrified that love itself has become a no-win scenario? That's the mood that Dead Ringers conjures. The ending, when it comes, is almost a relief, given the circumstances. I mentioned earlier that Cronenberg greeted Howard Shore's brilliant, melancholy score as "suicide music," but of course it's something else--it's romantic. That's the tricky fusion Dead Ringers induces, identifying an interplay of yearning and pathology. Beverly's love for Claire fulfills him--and then it destroys him, a contaminant in his delicate emotional ecosystem. Elliot can't resist the infection because he loves Bev too much to abandon him. This is a love story, or rather a story about love as both essential and impossible. If the Mantle twins are a kind of monster, then it's love itself that brings the monster to heel. Or, to put it another way, 'twas beauty killed the beast.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Dead Ringers makes its Region A Blu-ray debut in a new two-disc Collector's Edition offering a pair of HD transfers that are anything but twins. Scream Factory's cover copy implies the main difference is aspect ratios: Disc 1 presents the film in the HD-native aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and disc 2 in 1.66:1--the latter billed as a "new 2K scan at director David Cronenberg's preferred aspect ratio." That seems odd, frankly. If Shout! had access to a new 2K scan, why not use that as the source for both the 1.78:1 and 1.66:1 versions? For that matter, the practical difference between those two aspect ratios is pretty small. Why include the 1.78:1 variant at all?
Well, it turns out the question of framing is a bit dicey. All things being equal, you'd expect the 1.66 version of the film to be framed exactly like the 1.78 alternative except with a sliver more headroom and legroom at the top and bottom of the screen. That's not what happens here--framing on the top and bottom is close to the same, while the 1.78 option has significantly more picture information on either side. Moreover, the differences in composition aren't necessarily consistent from shot to shot. This suggests the 1.66:1 framing may be a little...let's say imprecise. Complicating matters further is the existence of a French (Region B) release from 2012 that has substantially more picture info on the left side of the frame. Consensus there is that the image incorrectly includes the portion of the camera negative that would be used for the optical soundtrack on release prints and should thus be cropped from any home-video release. That's borne out in an examination of certain elegantly-symmetrical shots that are thrown off-balance by the framing; you can see the evidence at DVDBEAVER.COM.
Real talk: Dead Ringers was exhibited in theatres at 1.85:1 and so the theatrical release is not adequately represented here. Furthermore, it's unclear whether Cronenberg would have specified an oddball aspect ratio if he were overseeing an HD transfer for large widescreen TVs as opposed to a standard-def release destined to be letterboxed on 4x3 tube TVs (as the Criterion transfer was when it debuted). Shout! Factory should have stepped up and chosen a single aspect ratio--1.85:1, 1.78:1, and 1.66:1 would all be defensible, in my opinion--and done their best to get the framing right from front to back, using the "director-approved" Criterion edition as a guide.
When you actually watch the movie (instead of simply checking out its measurements), the inconsistencies multiply. The transfer on disc 1 is tack-sharp, throwing film grain into sharp relief, and it exhibits the kind of electronic harshness that plagued some early HD releases. It's not bad but it's far from state-of-the-art. Surprisingly, disc 2 has a dramatically softer transfer. Textures are smoother, but film grain is mushy and details are harder to discern. While it's possible to imagine someone defending the smeary look as "more film-like," it's hard to believe this master is any more up-to-date. Moreover, only disc 1 exhibits the apparently correct colour treatments. We know what sort of colour palette Cronenberg had in mind for the Mantles' apartment, since he has discussed it on record. In Chris Rodley's book of interviews Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the director says, "I wanted the apartment to be purple and blue and sub-marine. It's very cool." That underwater look is very much in evidence on disc 1, but not at all on disc 2. For an even more specific colour reference, hit up DVDBEAVER.COM again for framegrabs from the old Criterion LaserDisc/DVD, which bore the company's famous "director-approved" seal. Its colour temperatures are a fairly perfect match for Shout Factory's 1.78:1 version. The 1.66:1 transfer is warmer from start to finish, quite noticeably in some shots, more subtly in others. So if the 1.66:1 version is incorrectly color-timed and inconsistently framed, how much does it really matter that it's at Cronenberg's supposedly preferred aspect ratio? For future viewing, I would queue up the 1.78:1 version every time.
But wait--there's more! Though Scream Factory presents Dead Ringers with a clean soundtrack (the Criterion master was plagued by audio distortion), the stereo channels are reversed on the 2.0 DTS-HD MA tracks for both incarnations of the film. Fortunately, this is not a deal-breaker--the accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks are all right, and they represent the soundtrack accurately, without spreading the elements too thin around the soundfield or adding needlessly directional effects--and word has spread in online forums that Shout! Factory has initiated a replacement program for those who complain to them directly, although the company does not appear to have addressed the issue openly.
In addition to the iffy A/V elements, this set has one more serious shortcoming: there is no sign of participation from David Cronenberg himself. Apparently he was either unwilling or unavailable to record a new commentary or appear on camera for an interview, and presumably Criterion was either unwilling to license its own Cronie yak track from 1996 or asked too dear a price. Still, Scream has assembled a decent set of supplements. Disc 1 offers two commentaries. The first, newly commissioned by Shout!, taps William Beard, author of The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. Beard spends perhaps too much time simply describing what's happening on screen, but he does explicate the characters' psychology well enough. And he's not completely hung up on issues of gender and sexuality, taking digressions into set design, shot composition, and other visual elements of Cronenberg's style. Sample insight: "Women tend not to like this movie at all." The second commentary dates to Warner's 2005 DVD and finds Jeremy Irons discussing the film at feature length. As you'd expect, he concentrates on the details of his own performance as well as how some of the directorial decisions made by Cronenberg emphasize the difference between the two characters. There's a fair bit of dead air in this one, but worth noting: Irons has a lovely speaking voice.
Moving on to disc 2, "Working Artist" (24 mins., HD) is a brand-new interview with noted oddball Stephen Lack, the actor playing the conceptual artist who casts Beverly's mutant gynecological instruments in the film. He's probably better known among horror fans for his legendarily terrible performance in Scanners, but he acquits himself here as a genuine eccentric overflowing with uncommon creative impulses--kind of a cross between David Lynch and Bob Ross. "To be in the arts, to draw," he says, "is to look at and to absorb. To be a performer is to be looked at, and I have a conflict. Sometimes I don't like to be looked at."
Clocking in at 19 minutes is "Connecting Tissues" (HD), featuring special-effects artist Gordon Smith, who remembers feeling uncomfortable stepping into the world of a director already so well-known for his make-up effects. Most notably, he recounts his work on the nightmare scene that didn't make it into the final cut, in which a shrivelled little twin was meant to grow out of Irons's torso. Cronenberg wanted a puppet; Smith argued in favour of an oversized body that would have allowed Irons to portray the atrophied twin from underneath a pile of prosthetic makeup. Cronenberg insisted. Smith says the animatronic puppet his crew developed for the shot was "the most incredible thing we ever built." Yet it wasn't good enough. It's legitimately heartbreaking to listen to him remember the experience of almost, but not quite, pulling off an impossible trick; this is one of my favourite extra features, ever.
In "Cary's Story" (19 mins., HD), Heidi Von Palleske, who plays Elliot's girlfriend, weighs in on her experience. She remembers auditioning ("a much easier process than it could have been"), describes her disappointment that working with Cronenberg didn't really kick-start her career as she hoped it would, and discusses her impressions of Irons's performance from her vantage point on set, including his willingness to stick around after he was needed in the frame to help her give a better performance. "Double Vision" (13 mins., HD) sees cinematographer Peter Suschitzky discussing his work on the film but talking only briefly about the "primitive" motion-control apparatus that allowed him to capture the groundbreaking splitscreen scenes. Instead, he recalls his introduction to Cronenberg on Dead Ringers (he hadn't seen any of his films when the job presented itself), their "relaxed and serious" attitude on set, and how the various elements of a picture's visual style--including locations and casting choices--are assembled over time "like a patchwork quilt that you slowly put together." Finally, he says that Dead Ringers is one of the best films he's ever shot.
Among the vintage features dating to the theatrical release (standard definition, of course) is an old EPK that clocks in at 17 minutes and a promotional featurette with voiceover, more tightly edited from the same raw material, that runs 7 minutes. Both pieces alternate talking-heads with Cronenberg, Irons, producer Marc Boyman, and co-screenwriter Norman Snider and behind-the-scenes footage, complete with illuminating glimpses of the "twinning" shoots. There's also a trailer (2 mins.) sourced from analog videotape with a narrator intoning a somewhat inappropriate tag line: "David Cronenberg makes reality the ultimate fantasy."