Dead Ringers wasn't necessarily a very pleasant film experience, but it's one that did shake me to the core as I watched it, in a way that is slightly comparable to The Fly. As an auteur, which could likely be applied to David Cronenberg, he keeps pressing on with many themes that he's been working through in the bulk of his career- and if not outright themes, general ideas that can draw out the darkest and saddest drama there is in the minds of men. Duality, to be sure, and also the complications that arise through forms of fetishism, or rather a kind of strange obsession with things involving the body, touching, feeling, close to one another in ways that are truly grotesque (in this case there is the quintessential nightmare scene where Bev sees Claire split apart himself from Eliot, his twin, by taking a bite out of the deformed connection with a vein in her mouth), and sometimes having to do with outright criminals (History of Violence and Spider come to mind as those who are just right on the brink all the time). But there's more, probably some things I didn't quite catch on, though I wouldn't put all of it on Cronenberg for making it such a beautiful work where objective perception through the camera- a bit like a documentary in a clinical sense, as many have noted- goes on with the subjectivity that is blurred through the twins.
And in typical Cronenberg fashion, there's something of an exploitation catch to start with, that soon dissipates upon a deepening of the characters. In what is one of the very bravest acting challenges, Jeremy Irons plays twin Canadian gynecologists, Bev and Eliot Mantle (Mantle = Mental? obvious perhaps but not too much so). They have some unorthodox methods, though not necessarily related to how they treat patients in the office. It's almost been a game for years, we find out, how they go between having women without them noticing. But actress Claire (the very talented, and maybe not quite on screen enough, Geneviève Bujold) can soon tell the difference after meeting one to see if she can have children, which she can't due to three uterus's, and then getting screwed over (literally) by another. But there is love between her and Bev, who is soon revealed as the more vulnerable and dependent of the two while Eliot is more confident, the ladies man, the one winning awards and getting teaching positions. It soon becomes apart of a breakdown process for Bev as she leaves him to go get work elsewhere, and soon its a spiral into drugs and delirium, including some unorthodox procedures with a 'gold' clamp.
The ingredients here could make for some truly wacky cinema, but under the hands of Cronenberg it's done to such a realistic extent that you can't escape the humility of the situations. These brothers, as well as brother-to-lover, are linked in a manner that defies general descriptions. And it's not necessarily in a very fetishistic construct, though it pops up once and again (my favorite was seeing the first sex scene between Claire and Bev- or is it Eliot, maybe it is- when he has her tied up to the bed with hospital equipment, as it's dangerous as anything Cronenberg has done with sex on film but touching in its long takes). But as in Spider, Cronenberg wouldn't have it get done correctly without the proper lead, and in Irons he finds someone who has such a wide range in pure theatricality: formal grace, apprehension, embarrassment, cruelty, reckless behavior whilst on drugs, delirium, moments of quiet tension, pain, fear, anger, it's all there up for grabs. Even when some scenes near becoming a little flat almost by Cronenberg's wavering detachment Irons brings it back to something that is profound. This is something unexpected, given that some scenes have to rely on levels of dark depravity (the first 'test' of the new instruments during surgery) and dark comedy even (the question inferred about sex with a dog to a woman is priceless).
It might come close to being, oddly enough, a definitive work from the director, even if it isn't perhaps his absolute best film. Yes, it's tone is cold and without the levels of sentimentality that could come had it been someone who went for a lower common denominator. Yet it has what most of his fans come to expect- twisted psychological drama, intense and quick shocks, and high-caliber performances to match the technical aspects achieved. It's not an easy film to love, but damn if one can't look away and not get it out of their heads once it's over.