Identical twin brothers Beverly and Elly Mantle are successful gynaecologists in Toronto. Their relationship is intense and very close - perhaps too close. The Mantles experiment with sex, drugs and personal identity, to the detriment of their practice, and ultimately of their psychological health.
This is a David Cronenberg film, so we are in the familiar realm of horror, mind games and perverted science. The director/producer/writer appears in the credits above the title and even ahead of his stars, Irons and Bujold. Essentially, the 'dead ringers' of the title are the brothers, who regard their mental and emotional oneness as being something more. They see themselves as siamese twins, bound by their flesh, and fated to share every experience, even unto death.
Irons does wonders to play two complex characters in one movie. A new technique called 'motion control' allows the actor to appear as two people in the same frame, but there is also plenty of the old 'body double' method, filming over a shoulder, then reversing the angle.
As teenage boys, the Mantle twins are clearly very bright, and display a precocious interest in surgery and women's reproductive apparatus. They are also creepy geeks. By the late 1980's they are handsome forty-somethings, and hailed as brilliant gynaecologists by everyone in the medical profession.
The screen actress Claire Niveau becomes Elliot's patient, and the brothers are soon sharing her. They frequently swap places without her knowledge. She has a unique uterus, and as Beverly (or is it Elliot?) explores this feature with his fingers, it is difficult to tell whether he is examining her or masturbating her. Before long, both brothers are doing both to Claire.
Elliot is a few minutes older than Beverly, microscopically taller and a nuance darker in colouring, but by nature he and 'baby brother' are utterly different. While Beverly is shy and diffident, Elliot is a callous, manipulative smoothie. When Claire, still unaware that she is sleeping with two men, expresses an interest in mild masochism, Beverly recoils but Elly enthusiastically obliges. He uses surgical tubes and clamps to tie Claire down for sex, and as he releases her after orgasm, we sense that for him the experience has been 'surgical' - almost a dispassionate experiment.
If Beverly is Jeckyll and Elliot is Hyde, we are always conscious that both personalities inhabit one awareness. "You haven't had any experience until I've had it too," Elliot tells Beverly, and the twins certainly seem to share everything, treating each other's patients (without telling the patients, of course) and working in tandem on research papers. The twins have a twin obsession in common - work and sex. Beverly sums it up with, "We do women - that's our speciality."
Identity is at the core of this film, and the dualities and ambiguities of personality recur with brain-teasing frequency. The twins are interested in female genitalia, both professionally and recreationally. Claire attracts them because of her dualities - she is a big personality who adopts other personas for her work: a strong woman who is turned on by being submissive: a gynaecological 'star' who happens to be infertile: and the French Canadian 'twin' to the English Canadian brothers. Elliot sleeps with two call-girls who are twin sisters, and identifies them by getting each to call him either 'Bev' or 'Elly'. The film has layer upon layer of these dualities. Genevieve Bujold is a French Canadian actress playing a French Canadian actress. We see her being made up for a movie, but when we see her left side, the make-up is of cuts and bruises. The Mantles prescribe drugs to each other, and each to himself, criss-crossing the doctor/patient demarcation lines. They take pills to cure their addiction to pills. Cary is having a relationship with Elliot, but when she gets both brothers at once, she is deeply aroused. The film, like the brothers, oscillates between oneness and separation. "I want to see you two together," says Claire, confused by their duality. So do we.