Twin brothers Beverly and Elliot are genius boys trying to understand women and their ways. After discussing the wonders of fish intercourse (they don’t need physical contact to procreate), they ask a neighbor girl to have sex with them in their bathtub. They grow up to become famous gynecologists, ironically learning very little about women. Elliot (Jeremy Irons) is a sly womanizer, while Beverly (also Jeremy Irons) is shy and only gets dates by pretending to be Elliot. They meet actress Claire (Genevieve Bujold), and plan to share her. Then Beverly falls for her, and Claire for him. However, Beverly is a bit unstable, which is exacerbated by a new drug problem, and he becomes paranoid and jealous. When he mistakes Claire’s male secretary for a lover, he breaks down. Elliot tries to help him and gets addicted himself, and they violently self-destruct together.
It’s a strange feeling watching the movie and feeling ambivalent about the guys. At times Beverly is whiny and Elliot is cruel. But I still feel moved by their plight and their unconditional love for one another. What’s fascinating about them is how clueless they are about women; they could possibly be construed as gay, given their strong bond to each other and their ambivalence about the female body. That they help women get pregnant for a living can be seen as a sublimation—they don’t do it physically, so they do it clinically. Beverly has sex with Claire, but in many of their scenes together she’s being more like a mother than a lover, like when she wipes his nose for him. When Beverly starts going crazy, he becomes convinced that his patients are mutants. He starts using a surgical tool for pap smears, and tells Elliot that it wasn’t the wrong tool, that “The woman’s body was all wrong!”
But I don’t think the brothers are meant to be gay per se; Beverly and Eliot don’t want other men—they want each other. (I recently read the book by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland that this movie is based on, and yup they are totally doin’ it–all of the damn time. One gets married to a woman and one is in a committed gay relationship, but dayum do they love them some incest.) In one scene, Elliot asks his companion Cary to dance with Beverly. Elliot comes up behind her and puts his arms around Beverly. Then he moves his hand to Cary’s back, down by Beverly’s crotch. Moments later, Beverly has an overdose; Cary tries to give him mouth-to-mouth and Elliot knocks her down, screaming, “Don’t touch him, he’s my brother!”
Disgust of the female body is apparent in other characters as well. When Claire has dinner with her agent and Elliot to discuss her chances of getting pregnant, Elliot asks Claire about her uterus and her agent chokes. Elliot asks about her period, and the agent leaves altogether. An incident with Claire’s secretary involves Beverly, in a fit of jealousy thinking that the two of them are lovers, telling the man to lubricate his fingers and feel Claire’s triple cervix. Claire tells Beverly that her secretary is gay, and “You managed to gross him out completely.”
Great performances abound, particularly by Irons as two radically different men. The special effects are surprisingly seamless for the late ’80s. This film was my first David Cronenberg, aside from having grown up watching The Fly. It made me a permanent fan.