I think the reason 1988's Dead Ringers was my favourite David Cronenberg movie for so long was that it's so reliably disturbing. I watched it again Friday night and it still feels fresh after viewing it many times over the past decade. It still gets under my skin and the ideas it presents still inspire new thoughts and reactions. I don't think I ever before quite appreciated the way it deals with psychological dysfunction the way I did Friday night.
It's loosely based on a true incident of twin gynaecologists being found dead in their apartment from drug overdose. But I got to thinking about whether or not, for the issues Cronenberg was exploring, the gynaecology aspect of the plot was important or if it was a distraction. I don't think it was for fidelity to the true story that Cronenberg kept the angle--certainly the "instruments for operating on mutant women" are a uniquely Cronenbergian invention.
I doubt I'm the first to say it, but it seems the concept of identical twin minds being peculiarly co-dependent here is used to illustrate a psychological dysfunction of one mind through dialogue and interaction of two characters.
It's the story of a small fracture in a perfectly functional adult psyche being disastrously enlarged by circumstances. We first meet the Mantle twins as children and a montage takes us through their college days to their present day situation as extremely successful and well respected gynaecologists, inventors of a surgical instrument with their own private practice.
When we see them as children, we see them analysing sex, at this point coolly grossed out by the idea of physical intimacy, but the two approach a little girl anyway and ask her to have sex with them purely for research purposes.
By the time they're in college, they've settled into an MO of one brother, Beverly, doing the brainier, research and developmental stuff at home while the other, Elliot, gives the speeches and performs other public relations functions which, by adulthood, extend even to getting women for the both of them.
Women and women's bodies in the movie are used to show not only how the brothers have dealt with their feelings about women but also to show the mechanisms they've developed to deal with life itself. Claire Niveau, whose very name suggests something new, serves as the shock of new experience the brothers had thought they'd overcome through a purely Apollonian approach to existence. Niveau is a personification of the inevitable Dionysian--she's a famous actress with mutated sexual organs. She sleeps with both brothers--through their usual technique of deception--and is appalled at first by being deceived but, perhaps more disastrously for the brothers, she eventually forgives them.
Or at least, she forgives Beverly because she's in love with him and decides to learn to accept Elliot as a friend in the interest of maintaining a good relationship with Beverly. This is what she says to Elliot in a private meeting, and one can see how disturbed Elliot is by the idea that he and his brother can really be so different.
The twins have a dynamic somewhat similar to the two Kirks in the famous Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within", when a transporter accident divides Kirk into two beings, one who's considerate, passive, and has difficulty making decisions, and another who's aggressive, passionate, and selfish. But the breakdown isn't quite like that in Dead Ringers--Beverly is made uncomfortable early in their relationship when Claire points out that he has a woman's name, perhaps for the horror at identifying with the body on the operating table or the people he uses through his brother. He's not simply "good Kirk", he's passionate himself, traditionally feminine as he has the supportive role in the dynamic between himself and his brother.
When he attempts a relationship with Claire, his immature instincts make him needy, unable to understand why she can't be with him constantly the way he's used to his brother being.
So we can see this as a story of the insulated environment of one mind being broken into by strange and unpredictable life. Something as simple as Claire going away for a little while thoroughly rocks mentally unequipped Beverly's world and he retreats to the sanctity of his brother but that's not enough for them to digest the fruit of knowledge Claire had innocently imparted to them. The downhill slope of the movie's latter portion sees the brothers trying to assimilate the knowledge of themselves and the world but they're too fixed to the track they made in their youth. Extreme measures of drugs and mutilation in the end can't make up for their weakness when faced with unpredictability.