This film traces the shared career and dissolution of Beverly and Elliot Mantle, male identical twins (both played, thanks to seamless special effects, by Jeremy Irons) who are gynecologists, running a successful fertility clinic in Toronto in the 1980’s. They share both work and personal lives; Elliot, the dominant twin, lectures at the hospital, accepts awards, plays the smooth professional--and seduces women. Beverly, the quiet one, sees patients, does research--and sometimes has affairs with women his brother passes on to him.

They usually draw the line at patients, not because of ethics, but because "it’s not safe." Their dealings with women have to be carefully compartmentalized, for the ambiguous intimacy of the gynecological doctor-patient relationship is difficult and dangerous for the twins, who form a psychologically unstable and deeply interdependent relationship on their own, likening themselves to the original Siamese twins, Eng and Chang, whose names they eventually take on, too.

Their symbiotic system is disrupted when a television actress, Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), consults them about her infertility. She has a trifurcate uterus--the twins call her a "mutation"--and will never have children. Elliot, fascinated, seduces her, and then gives her to Beverly, who falls in love, with disastrous consequences. When Claire discovers that they’ve deceived her and temporarily leaves, Beverly becomes addicted to the amphetamines and sleeping pills that Claire habitually abuses.

The drugs impair his work, he begins to hurt patients, is hospitalized, and after a calamitous breakdown in the operating room (where Beverly attempts to use the monstrously beautiful surgical instruments he designed himself

"for operating on mutant women") both brothers keep their hospital privileges only on condition that they don’t use them. Elliot tries to rehabilitate Beverly, but realizes that the need to do so comes from their absolute interdependence--they might as well be physically joined. So Elliot begins taking drugs as well, and when Claire returns and Beverly goes back to her, Elliot breaks down completely.

The rest of the film traces Beverly’s failed attempt to become a separate individual. The instruments he invented are now, he says, "for separating Siamese twins," and, in a terrifying surgery scene, the drugged Beverly "operates" on his conscious though equally drugged brother, apparently disemboweling him. Next morning, Beverly leaves the apartment where his dead brother lies and calls the woman he loves, but he cannot talk to her. He goes back, his bid for independent identity a failure, and the film ends on a shot of the two, dead, in an embrace echoing the Renaissance anatomical illustrations of in utero twins which illuminate the film’s opening credits.


The fact that this psychodrama about the interdependent identities of twins is set in a medical context suggest fascinating insights into physician identity, the interaction between professional and private personae, and the peculiar complexity of the intimacy underlying the gynecological physician-patient relationship. The Mantle twins can be thought of as embodying the physician’s necessary self-division into the smooth professional exterior persona (Elliot) and the private person (Beverly) who works in the background and is in danger of desiring, or even falling in love with, his patients--between clinical detachment and the vulnerability of empathy. To this extent, Dead Ringers can be seen as a parable about the dangers of creating and maintaining the double life apparently required of ambitious explorers of bodies.

The film also extends the divisiveness of the twin-identity to medical specialization: Elliot tells a desperate patient that he can do no more to help her because "we don’t do husbands." Her marriage is thus divided, the process of reproduction is divided (the Mantles "don’t do" prenatal care or birth, either), and women are divided, both literally in Beverly’s increasingly violent treatment of the patients (he tries to do a pelvic examination with a surgical retractor, for instance) and in Claire’s aptly three-fold cervix, and in the separation and then catastrophic overlapping of patient with object of desire.

The twins’ fatal entwinement and separation, then, appear to be the logical consequences of a system which, the film seems to say, dangerously compartmentalizes aspects of human nature which tend to resist division. Gynecology denies sexuality which dangerously resurfaces, and science avoids the artistic and theatrical which reappear, not just in the quite beautifully ritualized operating scenes, but also in Claire’s work as an actress (Elliot at one point watches a makeup artist create false wounds on her face) and in Beverly’s surgical instruments, which he has made by a sculptor who later steals the designs and exhibits them in an art gallery.

Whether taken literally as a story about twins, or more metaphorically as a parable about the modern divided self, Dead Ringers is a fascinating and disturbing exploration of the physician’s identity and the frightening capacity for distortion and impairment inherent in such a demanding role.


Screenplay by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider, based on the novel, Twins, by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland.

Primary Source

Media Home Entertainment, Heron Communications, Inc.