Release date: September 23, 1988
Director: David Cronenberg
Heidi von Palleske,
Stephen Lack and
Based loosely on a true story, the movie centers around two very close identical twins named Beverly and Elliott Mantle. They kind of sound more like a couple then brothers with those names. In a lot of ways, in spite of being two guys who have no sexual interest in one another, they are. They have two completely different personalities, Beverly possesses the feminine qualities and Elliott carries the masculine. The important thing to know is that even thought technically they are not physically joined like Siamese twins are, they are not separately complete. In their minds, they are a collective whole.
We first see the two twins when they are very young. Even then they are extremely brilliant, but can only see things in scientific terms. Like most members of their sex, they are drawn to women. They want to understand them, but the only way they know how is from a clinical standpoint. They are afraid of the essence of humanity, that everyone has their own experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. They are able to block this out and examine in the only way they know how. In fact, they are so brilliant at it that the "Mantle retractor" becomes the standard gynecological tool while they are still in school as undergraduates.
They do make a brilliant duo because they do different things and are very good in their roles. Elliot is the great spokesperson. He is outgoing and charming, into the glamour of his role. Beverly is the great researcher and practitioner. He connects better with the patients because he's more sensitive, but has none of the success sexually that Elliot does with women because he's very shy.
One of the best lines of the film is "the beauty of our business is you don't have to get out to meet beautiful women." It shows the twins interest, but also amplifies their flaw, that they really don't know what to do with them once they have them. They never have any kind of relationship with them; they just use them for sex. Sex for these two, like everything else, is a clinical formality. There's no passion to it. In fact, it's so much like surgery that at one point we see that Elliot clamps "his patient" down and doesn't release her until "surgery is over" (orgasm).
At one point, Elliot tells Beverly that he'd still be a virgin if it weren't for him. It's true, Elliot's skill is in recruiting the women, and the women don't know the twins are sharing them. If the women's goal is more than a one-night stand, they'll come to like Beverly better because he can connect with them on an emotional level. Beverly's problem is their world is male dominated, and Elliot is a master manipulator. He sees the relationships through the limited view of Elliot, and Elliot doesn't consider Beverly's success to be a good thing. He considers it a weakness, and due to the connection Elliot's weakness is also considered by Beverly to be Beverly's weakness.
Beverly's transformation "into Elliot" is aided by drugs. Originally he was going to prescribe the best drugs for Claire, but he winds up taking them with her and he's hooked. Between the drugs, his newfound realizations, and his rejection of the feminine role in the relationship with Elliot, Beverly becomes insane. The real cause for the insanity though is their dream of transcending the individual beginning to crumble. I don't think he takes drugs because Claire does or because they are tempting, I believe it's because he knows effecting his body alters his reality. Like everything else in their lives, Beverly's insanity is an experiment. Beverly is seeing how much his changes will effect his brother, testing things like do they really have individual nervous systems.
One of the main themes that stretches across David Cronenberg's highly underrated body of work is terror from within. Cronenberg is not trying to make us believe that they are really one, that is the delusion of grandeur the Mantle brothers have been attempting to perpetrate all these years. They've been successful in their belief that they could always count on each other, but the failure of their belief that nothing and no one could come between them results in their wall of perpetual "self reliance" tumbling down.
Even when Beverly believes Claire has cheated on him, he's not able to forget about her and return to the life when he was "one" with Elliot. Instead, certainly aided by the drugs, he starts thinking all women are mutants. Claire is a mutant because she can't have kids due to her uterus having three openings, but others, I think, are mutants because they are capable of producing identical twins. Beverly has sinister gynecological tools created to use on these creatures. In doing so, it actually goes against the Mantle brothers dream because the creation of the technology on his own is Beverly expressing his uniqueness, his characteristics such as creativity. The scene where he first operates with them is the eeriest, creepiest, and most chilling in the film. It's basically the end of Beverly as a practicing doctor; his reputation has been ruined.
Elliot hasn't done anything wrong, but he can't go on without Beverly. Beverly's research is the basis for all his work, but it goes beyond that. He can't cut himself loose. Elliot had been fairly immune to Beverly's experimentation before, but now he begins to give up on his own life and delve into the drugs, darkness, and instability that has become Beverly's life. At this point, Beverly is too far gone and destroyed to change for him, so he must change for Beverly to keep the dream alive. Some people find Elliot's dip into madness unbelievable, but his line "whatever is in his blood stream goes directly into mine" explains everything you need to know about how these two think and just how far reaching their dream is.
Both twins retreat, but even alone together they cannot regain what they once thought they had. The "gynecological instruments for working on mutant women" become tools for separating Siamese twins. They are afraid of this separation, and although an "operation" is performed, separation is not its purpose. Instead, what they are doing is attempting physical "re-attachment:" committing suicide as a last ditch attempt to reclaim their delusion. They believe they are achieving their dream by doing this, but the viewer knows that this act/suicide just proves the fallacy of their delusion and is a violent end to their dream.
The movie is very good on many levels, but the key to its success is the acting by Jeremy Irons. Irons, among the best actors currently working, has given many memorable performances in quality movies like Moonlighting, The Mission, Reversal of Fortune, Fatale, M. Butterfly, Lolita, and so on, but none top the work he does here. He creates two distinctly unique halves so perfectly nuanced that we instantly know which brother he's playing that converse with each other often, then eventually blends them together. It's the perfect descention performance because of the balancing factor. Two different characters dropping is harder than one, but on top of that Beverly has to drop and at the same time become more Elliot like and vice versa.
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