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'Dead Ringers'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 23, 1988


David Cronenberg
Jeremy Irons;
Genevieve Bujold;
Heidi Von Palleske;
Stephen Lack

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They were the best of gynecologists, they were the worst of gynecologists.

Jeremy Irons splits the difference in "Dead Ringers," a tale of twin ladies' men who take more than a professional interest in their patients. With the help of split screens and body doubles, Irons creates a creepy variation on the Doublemint Twins -- clean, clinical and stuck to each other like gum in hair.

"Dead Ringers" is every woman's nightmare turned into a creepy thriller, a disquieting fingernail-biter loosely based on the book "Twins," itself loosely based on the Park Avenue doctors found dead in their apartment full of Colonel Sanders buckets and bones. In the pared-down movie version, the gynos become psychos when an oddball actress comes between them.

David Cronenberg, famous for "The Fly," "Scanners" and "The Dead Zone," cowrites and directs this visceral drama -- who better to document a regular checkup than a horror auteur? Say "stirrups" to a woman, and she doesn't think of John Wayne.

Here, Cronenberg moves from the realistic fantasy of "The Fly" to a fantastical reality. Through this bent love triangle he explores trust, appearances and vulnerability. This is Jekyll/Hyde, Hyde/Jekyll.

"The marvelous Mantles," as their high-society clients call them, share everything -- a thriving practice, a high-tech condo and their women, one often impersonating the other. Shy, scholarly Beverly (no wonder he's got a problem) is the clinician and researcher. The extroverted Elliot makes the speeches and the conquests. Despite their psychosexual attachment, all is well with the Mantles. Then along comes infertile Claire Niveau, spookily played by Genevieve Bujold. Beverly examines her. Elliot, pretending to be Beverly, takes her to bed.

"You've got to do the movie star," says Elliot the morning after. "She's unbelievable." Pretending to be Elliott pretending to be him, Beverly reluctantly keeps a date with the "still vibrating" Claire. She frightens him off when she asks to be tied to the bed, but he comes to love her nevertheless. Claire, meanwhile, can't understand why she loves him sometimes and sometimes not. Eventually she discovers their deception and ends the relationships temporarily. Beverly is inconsolable and starts to abuse drugs, a habit that eventually destroys both brothers.

It is love, twisted and trapped, that breaks Beverly -- or, on a grander scale, it is Woman. The psycho-gynos have tried but failed to keep women at a distance. As adolescents they even performed an autopsy on a Visible Woman to learn about sex. At medical school, they excelled in their studies as they attempted to understand women from the inside out. And it is no accident that they came to specialize in fertility, in hopes of discovering the secrets of the womb.

Beverly wants a normal man-woman bond, but the stronger, older Elliot insists, "You haven't had any experience till I have it, too." The brothers become more difficult to distinguish as they move toward the chicken-bucket phase. We never know which one is about to bind Claire, examine patients or perform delicate surgery. The tension is palpable. Irons confuses, terrifies and astounds with this eerie performance -- like Patty Duke in a house of mirrors. Bujold seems to have arrived from another planet, her tired, myopic eyes focused somewhere else. And who can blame her? They are the perfect odd couple of couples for this grotesquerie.

"Dead Ringers" has the appeal of tabloid headlines. Watching it is like slowing down to look at a traffic accident, afraid you might see something. It's really sordid stuff that becomes ridiculous, painful, unbelievable and tedious when the Mantles hit bottom, sharing needles and putting their faces in sponge cake in their squalid offices.

Cronenberg, infamous for exploding heads and such, isn't going to let us go home without grossing us out just a bit. The movie is really almost tasteful considering his stomach-churning capacities. He always does it for a higher purpose, though, which is why his films sometimes win wider audiences. This one probably won't cross over, because it's too queasy. Mostly it should boost business for female gynecologists.

Dead Ringers, at area theaters, is rated R for everything.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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