When Nathaniel of The Film Experience picked Dead Ringers as this week’s entry for Hit Me with Your Best Shot, it was to commemorate what was at the time going to be the publication in the same week of The Desiring-Image, the dense and academic but pretty terrific first book of Northwestern University professor Nick Davis, friend of Antagony & Ecstasy generally and specific IRL friend of the blogger thereof, so there’s your full disclosure. The book ended up streeting a little early, but it’s still a fine time to celebrate not just Nick’s achievement – I mean, hell, when I get around to writing a book, we’ll have a whole damn year about it – but also the movie itself, which for any reason you want to dredge it up is one of the highlights, if not the best film, of director David Cronenberg, one of the leading lights of body horror, Canadian cinema, Canadian horror, and honestly, cinema generally in the last three decades.
Of course you’ve seen the film; and if you haven’t seen the film, it’s awfully important that you make that happen sooner rather than later, unless you’re so squeamish about uncomfortable-making physical abnormalities that even the phrase “body horror” is a problem. It’s that good. Anyway, since of course you’ve seen the film, you know that it’s about twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, a most ingenious pair of docs played by Jeremy Irons in hands-down the best work of his career. Their hobbies include sharing everything, but especially women, and the fun kicks off when the more sensitive and gentle but also much more fucked-up Beverly falls in love with Claire (Genevieve Bujold), a woman with a mutated cervix. I would not dare to spoil the surprises, and they are legion.
Compared to a lot of Cronenberg movies, especially before the end of the 20th Century, Dead Ringers isn’t too terribly heavy on nightmare-fuel imagery (no Fly-style maggot birth scene here), which is probably just as well, because I’d have gone there without a moment’s hesitation, and that would probably not have been to the benefit of the blog or its readers. Instead, a little creativity was called for. Now, the visuals (lensed by the irreplaceable Peter Suschitzky) tend to hover around one particular idea that gets worked out, often explicitly but frequently more suggestively, in almost every scene of the film, and that is the notion of a shadowbox, a diorama, or best of all, given the film’s prevalence of smooth metallic and glass surfaces, an aquarium. There’s a lot of depth to the film, but also a lot of boxes: it traps its characters in images that are as menacing as they are stuffy and claustrophobic. I had a shot that I wanted so much to go with, but it seemed too obviously “Look at me! Look at my framing!” for me to feel very good about making that choice. I would like to share it as my honorable mention.
But anyway, on to my actual pick for best shot. It is of the two Mantles in their shared apartment, a spacious, patently expensive space all done up in the very sleekest ’80s Futurist aesthetic that the richest gynecologists i n Toronto can afford:
Besides the incredibly awesome mirroring of my runner-up (though hardly an accident: the film relies so much on red and grey that it might as well not include any other colors), it’s my favorite image from the film for a host of reasons, chief among them being how utterly chilly it is: even Elliot’s red robe parodies the idea of adding a splash of color rather than actually bringing any kind of life to the Mantles’ sleek glass and concrete lair overlooking a city flattened and depersonalised to the point that it’s no better than a matte painting.
It’s not the first time we’ve been in the brothers’ home, but it is a major scene: the first time that weak Beverly informs his brother that he’s decided to keep some secrets about his personal sexual experiences, thus sending the rest of plot on its merry, psychotic way. That’s flagged by the staging of the two men with their backs to the camera and Beverly turning his back on Elliot, of course (which is also, no doubt, a labor-saving gambit: why bother with process shots when you can just use a double?), but it’s not really what the shot is “about”. Looking at this, irrespective of the narrative context, you notice the seemingly endless depth of the apartment but also its sterile gloominess; the expansive view but also the lack of anything particularly attractive to see through those magnificent windows. It is a shot, in essence, telling us that the people who live in it are hollow, stylish shells, dark and devoid of any touch of sweetness or humanity. The rest of the film amply bears that notion out.
For lagniappe, and since the book that brought us to this moment is about all the facets of queer sexuality, I would like to step to the scene before this one, a typically Cronenbergian sex act.
Surgical clamps and rubber tubing as erotic props in a Cronenberg horror film about gynecologists? Sounds about right to me.