Why We’re Living in an Age of Twins

The French writer Hervé Le Tellier’s entertaining novel “The Anomaly” (2020) dramatizes the real-life implications of confronting one’s double, even as a cottage industry of recent nonfiction titles such as “How to Be Multiple” by Helena de Bres (with illustrations by her twin sister, Julia) and William Viney’s “Twinkind” explore the cultural, social and philosophical significance of twins in both private and public ways. Amazon’s “Dead Ringers” (2023), starring Rachel Weisz in the dual role of twin gynecologists, deals with the sinister implications of what the American historian Hillel Schwartz describes in his 1996 book, “The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles,” as “a devouring twin.” Here, the medical phenomenon of vanishing twin syndrome, where one of a pair of conceived twins disappears before birth, stands in for the idea of a destructive other, the implication being that the same nature that produces genius in us contains a corrosive coeval that, unchecked, will be our undoing. Todd Haynes’s latest film, “May December,” features a blond Julianne Moore against a dark-haired Natalie Portman, who’s studying her to make a film about her life. As in Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” (1966), to which Haynes has acknowledged a debt, twoness here serves as a vessel for the relationship between art and life, innocence and experience, purity and corruption.

“Dead Ringers” — a gender-swapped remake of the 1988 David Cronenberg film — opens by addressing our attraction to the idea of twins in its crudest form. At a diner, where the two Mantle twins, Elliot and Beverly, having just performed a C-section, are eating breakfast, a gross old man (let’s call him Larry, as the darker of the Mantle twins, Elliot, does) propositions the two sisters. “You guys ever … you know … two of you, plus a guy … ?” The twins play along. “Yes, please, let’s go” — Beverly, the good twin, says, making explicit her love of sex with her sister, especially putting her tongue on her tongue and inside her vagina. “And for a man’s pleasure? For your pleasure?” Larry digs himself deeper into a classic male more-is-more fantasy, which left a huge imprint on 20th-century pornography and advertising. “Double dipping, double fun,” Schwartz quotes a pornographer-psychiatrist in his analysis of the ubiquitous use of female twins in commercials, most memorably to sell Ponds Vanishing Cream in the 1940s. Schwartz then gives us the perspective of a subject in a study named Linda Thompson, as she speaks to the psychiatrist: “You see, doctor, twins are not like other people. We’re deeply bonded, exactly alike and inseparable from birth. To have another human being — the mirror image of yourself — constantly around at the age when your sexual feelings begin to surface. … And all your erotic feelings are being felt at the same time … by another person who looks, talks, acts, eats and dresses like you! The possibilities are endless!”

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