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The Fruit Cellar: From Body Horror to Identity Horror
Of his 1988 film Dead Ringers, David Cronenberg said, "It has to do with that element of being human. It has to do with that ineffable sadness that is an element of human existence."1 This statement is entirely true. His film manages to simultaneously question and confirm the humanity and weaknesses of its central characters; however, Cronenberg's assessment of his own film is surprisingly reductive. Upon closer investigation, Dead Ringers seems to be about so much more. It's a complicated discussion of identity-how we come to understand ourselves, what defines us, and ultimately, what destroys us.
Dead Ringers is, for those reading who've not yet seen the film, the story of identical twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle. (Don't let the name fool you. Beverly is a fella.) The two brothers share everything-an illustrious research career and private practice, a ritzy apartment, and their women. That the brothers find women fascinating is perhaps obvious, but their relationship with the female of the species is one of detached investigation, as women and their bodies are the subject of their research and experimentation. Women come through their practice and, as Elliot notes, often end up in their beds. The brothers deceive their conquests. One may never be sure which Mantle brother is laying beside them in the night.
That is until Claire Niveau enters their lives. Claire longs to be a mother, but the Mantles inform her that she's a trifurcate: She doesn't have just one cervix; she has three. A curiosity for the Mantle brothers, to be sure. Elliot takes the opportunity to learn more about Claire's body and swiftly beds the willing and adventurous actress. But when the two brothers switch off with Claire, she falls for Beverly, the quieter and gentler of the two, and she begins to notice subtle changes in her lover each time she sees him. She says that while he's sometimes an engaging and loving companion, at other times he's "no more than an amusing lay." It's this difference that slowly leads to her discovery of their deception, and she abruptly ends her relationship with them-if only temporarily.
This is the beginning of the end for the Mantle brothers. Claire's departure leaves Beverly devastated, and he begins taking drugs to cope with the loss. He quickly becomes addicted, and when Claire reunites with him, the addiction only worsens. The couple's attachment to each other seems to grow as quickly as Beverly's addiction, and when Claire leaves Toronto to work on a film, he is held captive by jealous fantasies that lead him even further down the path to destruction.
It's at this stage that Elliot intervenes, trying to help Beverly recover from his drug addiction. When the supposedly drug-free Beverly uses dangerous (and macabre) self-designed instruments in surgery, the two brothers begin to lose the career they valued so highly. It's after the brothers lose everything that Elliot becomes convinced that all their troubles come from the pair's lack of synchronicity. As he says, whatever flows through Beverly's blood "flows directly" into his own. He, too, develops a drug addiction in trying to put the two separate bodies back in synch with each other-to make them one again.
Even with the return of Claire, the two brothers cannot be saved. They descend even further into addiction and madness-eventually attempting to separate themselves from each other. Beverly uses his instruments in a surgery to separate them causing Elliot to lose his life. Beverly makes one last effort at survival, leaving his and his brother's littered offices to call Claire from a payphone on the street. When she answers, he finds himself unable to speak. He returns to his brother and lays his own body across his brother's body waiting for death to come to him too. This is the final shot of the film.
The synopsis I've provided is, like Cronenberg's comment, reductive. It presents a film filled with the appeal of a tabloid story's lead: "Twin Gynecologists Die in Drug Binge and Radical Surgery!" The film is more than the sum of its parts, however, and what Cronenberg has ultimately provided, whether or not he's aware, is a story that mirrors the development of individual identity. The film marks his exit from the world of body horror-one he'd mastered, to be sure-into a world in which horrors are based upon identity and individual traumas are felt because they have betrayed some version of the self.
If identity is to be the battleground of the film, then it only seems appropriate to estimate the levels of development the Mantle brothers have reached. Lacanian psychoanalysis presents the best structure for understanding the two brothers' development throughout the film. His theory provides three significant stages in the development of identity (and personality): the Imaginary Order, the Mirror Stage, and the Symbolic Order. While these stages are meant to occur within the normal development and growth period of an infant or child, we can look at the Mantle brothers as being in a unique context, as they are twins with a particularly special relationship.
If the film fits the aforementioned structure, it's clear at its opening that the two brothers are in the Imaginary Order. In this space, differentiation between the self and the other is impossible. A mind is at complete peace never recognizing itself as a whole and separate being. It's easy to see the mixing and melding of identity that takes place at the start of the film as representative of this stage in child (or in this case adult) development. Beverly and Elliot frequently act as each other in social and professional situations. Those who know them cannot tell the difference between the two, and indeed, the difference must be so minimal that even their lovers cannot not recognize the deceptions perpetrated against them.
The Mantle brothers are at complete peace in this realm. Their world suits them and their desires. But as with any children, a point must come at which they are shaken out of their imaginary world and into one of separation. Enter Claire Niveau. Claire acts as the mirror for the two brothers. In Lacan's estimation, it is when the child sees the self reflected back (literally or figuratively) that one begins to notice that he or she has a self separate from others.
Claire provides this most directly for Beverly, and through Beverly's changes, she also manages to force an identity upon Elliot. After making love with Beverly, she expresses confusion. She says that she likes him very much, but on some days he's no more than "an amusing lay." This is one of the earliest moments in which Beverly is shown the difference between him and his brother. The reflection is positive and, therefore, addictive. It's Beverly for which Claire falls, so he continues to see her-even after he and his brother's deception is revealed. Claire's clear statement signals to Beverly (and Elliot by extension) that the two do, in fact, have separate lives. And this separation is promoted by Beverly when he chooses to keep his affair with Claire to himself-directly defying Elliot's decree that he's never experienced anything until Beverly's shared that experience with Elliot.
As with Lacan, it's the mirror stage that eventually sets the stage for psychic unrest. One cannot spend life in the mirror stage. As we constantly learn and adapt to our environment, the self-differentiation provided by the mirror stage gives way to an understandings of objects and other individuals as having distinct and separate qualities of their own. According to Lacan, it is here-in the Symbolic Order-that we begin to experience psychological trouble. There is a great pain associated with becoming disconnected from the world you once believed you were wholly connected to. And this is true in the case of Beverly and Elliot.
As Beverly's relationship with Claire becomes more serious, he begins spending nights outside of his home with his brother and instead in bed with Claire. He's beginning to belong to that Other (and make no mistake-woman is the Other in Dead Ringers). He's beginning to see himself through her eyes-to understand himself by the ways in which he is different. He begins to make the choices Claire would make, and he begins to avoid his brotherly connection-even going so far as to lie to Claire about Elliot's very existence.
It's a resistance to this separation that ultimately leads to the Mantle brothers' downfall. As Beverly falls deeper and deeper down the path of addiction, his connection to Claire becomes more and more tenuous. As such, he retreats (or regresses) back into the home of his brother who, at first, tries to save him. But they've moved past a stage of identification with each other, and they will continue to struggle with this differentiated world of which they've become a part-as long as they attempt to resist it.
Together again, Beverly and Elliot make their best effort to fall back into the Imaginary Order. As they regress into each other, so their personalities regress in development. They begin to experience what can only be called complete psychological unraveling. As more time passes, they begin to see themselves as not just identical twins, but also as conjoined twins-believing themselves to be the same as that famous duo Chang and Eng.
But once the mind has entered the Symbolic Order, there is no going back, and Beverly and Elliot's resistance to their own identity development ultimately leads to their destruction, as Elliot becomes the patient in the aforementioned surgery. Beverly's inability to reach out to Claire is yet another indication of his regression. And this regression is made complete when he returns to his brother's body. Both of their lives come full circle when they are returned to each other in death.
Cronenberg's film is based on the 1977 novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, which is, in turn, based on a true story. The twins in the novel and in life died by committing suicide together in their Manhattan apartment, but Cronenberg's ending seems just as appropriate-two brothers whose identities have become so enmeshed they can no longer survive without making a final violent attempt to separate themselves.
The reading I've given of the film is likely a bit reductive as well, as there is so much packed into this film it's hard to wade through. I could have spent hours writing paragraphs about the latent homosexuality between the two brothers (after all, they do essentially share the same sexual experiences). I could have gotten more into the very queer notion that identity is a performance (if one can pretend to be the other, what is this if not performance?) But the nature of Beverly and Elliot's connection, as well as the path to their destruction, forced my hand. Besides, the rest all seems too easy, no?
- Rodley, Chris, and David Cronenberg. Cronenberg on Cronenberg. London: Faber and Faber, 1997. (back)