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David Cronenberg in One Shot

Grandmaster of body-horror David Cronenberg encapsulated in a single shot from “Dead Ringers” (1988).
Johannes Black
One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie. 
Dead Ringers
When intellectualized and ruminated over, Othello’s fleshly passions change, moving from the physical to psychological across the play—hence the complaint of “a pain upon my forehead, here.” David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) marks a similar transition within his own filmography. Positioned in the middle of his career, the film casts a bridge between his early experiments in body horror and pulp kink-exploitation (Shivers, Rabid, The Fly) and his later, conceptual interests in the science and psychobiology of human beings (Crash, A Dangerous Method, A History of Violence). Dead Ringers participates in the lurid, sometimes troubling acts of violence with which Cronenberg first made his name: identical twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle (freely derived from real-life twins Stewart and Cyril Marcus) trade turns in their seduction of an unsuspecting patient, Claire Niveau. But the film also faces in another direction, Janus-like, looking to dissect and understand the raw passions it allows. Here, Cronenberg re-treads many familiar themes and motifs—the triangular intersection of sex, identity, and technology—playing both provocateur and revisionist. The director’s embrace of the physical and psychological is found in the closing image of Dead Ringers: having surgically “cut loose” from Beverly—neither an act of murder nor self-sacrifice—Elliot curls over his brother’s disemboweled corpse, perhaps even dead himself. The camera drifts around doorways, over the bloodied operating table, before revealing this painterly image of the brothers—and closing out with darkness. At times, you cannot tell Elliot from Beverly, but like anyone who has befriended twins knows, the differences soon make themselves apparent. Before now, Elliot betrayed a callousness that his brother, Beverly, did not possess. But in this image one brother could easily be mistaken for the other, their death pose splicing together their bodies and identities, like a re-sewn umbilical connection between Siamese twins or Mary and Christ. That Cronenberg would have exploited this scene for its horror in previous films, but here chose instead to emphasize its quiet tragedy, is more than suggestive of his own creative re-alignment. The shared pursuits of the Mantle brothers speak to his matured interest in the psychological, Darwinian interdependence of family members: the terrifying truth that family is capable of doing anything for family, simply by virtue of these invisible bonds. One body lying upon another, the two sides of Cronenberg’s aesthetic are visually personified. These twin strands of Dead Ringers subtly reach ahead to the psychological upheaval of Thomas Stall/Joseph “Joey” Cusack in Cronenberg’s later masterpiece, A History of Violence, whose former identity rubs up against his present. And more recently still, his 1-minute NFT video titled “The Death of David Cronenberg”—wherein Cronenberg himself discovers, and physically embraces, a silicone copy of his own corpse—evokes the final image of Dead Ringers, delineating the two halves of a single identity.


One ShotQuick ReadsColumnsDavid Cronenberg
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