Jacques Lacan’s notion of the ‘mirror stage’ embodies a powerful intersection of psychoanalysis and film theory; when identical twins are the focal point of a cinematic narrative, the work becomes fertile ground for exploring the subconscious terrain of identity formation.
According to Lacan, the fragile human ego is on an endless quest for reconciliation with the promised illusion of a ‘perfect’ self. The infant first glimpses itself in the mirror and perceives a gloriously unified whole – a being in control of its bodily mechanisms. This contrasts with the fledgling agency of the infant, who is yet to master control of its limbs. Even further away from the child’s grasp is an ability to exert control over the physical and social environment. Lacan called that first interaction with one’s own reflection the ‘ideal ego’. From that moment of initial contact with a romanticised version of ourselves, our unconscious seeks an unattainable state of perfection, and is therefore always dissatisfied.For a detailed explanation of Lacan’s mirror stage, see Adrian Johnston, ‘The Mirror Stage, the Ego, and the Subject’, in ‘Jacques Lacan’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013, <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan/#MirStaEgoSub>, accessed 2 November 2017.
It seems fitting, then, that the idea of doubling was also taken up by Lacan:
the specular image seems to be the threshold of the visible world, if we take into account the mirrored disposition of the imago of one’s own body in hallucinations and dreams, whether it involves one’s individual features, or even one’s infirmities or object projections; or if we take note of the role of the mirror apparatus in the appearance of doubles, in which psychical realities manifest themselves.Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink, W. W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 2006 , p. 77, emphasis in original.
On film, identical twins offer a tangible externalisation of that first misapprehension of self. In fact, twins have long been a powerful device for exploring disquieting generic tropes, from the body horror of Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988) to the psychological horror of Goodnight Mommy (Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz, 2014). And, as far as iconic cinematic images go, few are more instantly recognisable than the Grady daughters (Lisa and Louise Burns) from The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) standing creepily in the corridor of the Overlook Hotel. Elsewhere, Bollywood film Angoor (Gulzar, 1982) takes up the trope of mistaken identity as it tracks two pairs of identical twins, while the same twin trope is performed with exuberant theatricality by Bette Davis in the classical Hollywood drama A Stolen Life (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946).
While identical twins are utilised as a trope in a range of genres, they are particularly resonant in works of horror, in which their physical doubling is used to heighten tension and magnify a climate of uncertainty. This is illustrated, for instance, in the ‘secret’ communication between twins (known as ‘cryptophasia’), which instantly creates outsiders of everyone beyond the closed circle of the siblings’ preternatural relationship. In this way, twins are portrayed as fundamentally transgressive, thereby making them perfect subjects for horror – a genre concerned with creating ‘safe’ spaces within which to enact and eventually dispel sociocultural anxieties.Anne Billson, ‘Crash and Squirm’, The Guardian, 31 October 2008, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/oct/31/horror>, accessed 2 November 2017. At the same time, however, the identity confusion that identical twins embody tends to also work well with the comedy genre, in which humour ‘can result from a sense of things being out of place, mixed up or not quite right’.Geoff King, Film Comedy, Wallflower Press, London, 2002, p. 5.
Dark doubling: Rabbit
The Australian horror/thriller Rabbit (Luke Shanahan, 2017) opens with an intriguing narrative hook. Maude (Adelaide Clemens) is convinced her identical twin – Cleo (also played by Clemens), who has been missing for over a year – is still alive. Having a recurring dream in which her sister is locked up in a small room, Maude intuits this as a subconscious message from Cleo, a transference of lived experience from one twin to another. It is this perturbing overlay of self and Other that provides the central premise of Rabbit, a film that plays with audience expectations by incorporating tropes and conventions from multiple genres.
Rabbit’s form chimes with Steve Neale’s seminal theory of genre, which emphasises that genre works are not static but rather characterised by a process of repetition and variance:
Each new genre film constitutes an addition to an existing generic corpus and involves a selection from the repertoire of generic elements available at any one point in time. Some elements are included; others are excluded […] In addition, each new genre film tends to extend this repertoire, either by adding a new element or by transgressing one of the old ones.Steve Neale, ‘Questions of Genre’, in Robert Stam & Toby Miller (eds), Film and Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2000, p. 165.
Indeed, exemplifying Neale’s idea of extending the generic repertoire, Rabbit’s foregrounding of twins’ unique psychical connection adds a metaphysical element to the mystery/thriller template. The film also employs the ‘mad scientist’ trope to imbue the scientific (and, by extension, public) fascination with cryptophasia with a Gothic twist. Shanahan inverts the idea of twin-as-sinister by having Maude captured and subjected to invasive experiments in the service of an enigmatic endgame.
During these sequences, the duality of the identical twin is retained, with Maude simultaneously inhabiting the positions of both subject and object. In philosophical terms, her role as hero – the sensing ‘I’ – is collapsed with that of experiment/object. Within the logic of the film, Maude’s ‘twinness’ is a highly fetishised commodity, one that outsiders want to analyse and eventually appropriate. Despite the perverse diegetic world of blank corridors, locked doors and dubious scientific methodologies, and the suffering that we watch Maude undergo, it is the possibility of her psychical connection with Cleo that most effectively elicits our sympathies, generating both allure and revulsion, emotion and intellectual engagement.
Rabbit’s denouement – which proffers more questions than definitive explanations – will not please everybody, but it is consistent with the register of uncertainty that twins bring to the darker edges of genre cinema.
Likeness and levity: That’s Not Me
The proximity of psychological discomfort to laughter is explored in comedy film That’s Not Me (Gregory Erdstein, 2017), which follows Polly (Alice Foulcher) on her quest to become a famous actor. Unfortunately for Polly, her identical twin, Amy (Foulcher, again), has made it big in Hollywood and has started dating co-star Jared Leto (Jordan Prosser). Polly is forever being confused with her well-known sister, and her agent even decides to drop her because she’s ‘too confusing’ for casting personnel.
The film’s title is predicated on a misapprehension: the sentence ‘That’s not me!’ signals the anxiety that surrounds being mistaken for somebody else. It speaks to the terror of being replaceableThis idea is taken further in the Tropfest-winning short Carmichael & Shane (Alex Weinress, 2006), in which a single parent urges other parents of twins to ‘choose a favourite’. Lurking below the humour is the genuinely subversive idea that twins represent a surplus or excess that is difficult to integrate into the social fabric. or insufficiently unique to be recognised. It conjures the ego at its battlements, demanding recognition. In light of these concerns, it’s no wonder that narcissism is a recurring concern in Erdstein’s film. When pressed, Polly can’t really say why she wants to act. We’re made to assume that it’s because she doesn’t want her twin to be more successful than she is, and that she hasn’t mapped out her own trajectory beyond competing with her sister.
But That’s Not Me goes further, magnifying the reach of Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage to reflect on the cult of celebrity that has pervaded popular screen culture. Polly’s obsession with fame for fame’s sake recalls the endless procession of YouTube celebrities and reality TV personalities that are trotted out each year. Here, the specular is collapsed with the narcissistic idealisation of a self that is mediated by technology, invoking cultural anxieties about the democratisation of the visual image: if anyone can transmit themselves onto a screen, who polices what is rejected and what is viewed? The duality suggested by the state of twinness means that Polly embodies both sides of this tension: the celebrity-obsessed wannabe and the dismissive consumer of culture. This dynamic resonates as Polly watches Amy play a soap-opera role that she previously turned down. After her flatmates enthuse that Amy’s performance as a person with albinism is respectful and captivating, Polly is incensed – not just by their affirmation of her sister’s acting talents, but also, perhaps even more so, by the sneaking validation afforded by the ‘low’ artform that is the soap opera.
There are several amusing scenes in which Polly visually apprehends her ideal ego via screens, billboards, posters and even childhood photographs. As she waits for a train, an enormous billboard advertising Amy’s breakout Hollywood performance in The Bell Jar dwarfs the surroundings. As Amy’s face stares back at Polly, Lacan’s mirror comes sharply into view. In this scene, we glimpse the ego’s relentless search for completion as Polly first unconsciously recognises herself, then apprehend her envy regarding a celebrity status that she desires, but which has been claimed by another.
Here, the notion of doubling encapsulated by identical twins invokes the Freudian notion of the uncanny, ‘that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar’.Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, trans. David McLintock, Penguin, London, 2003 , p. 124. There is an immediate superficial tension to the appearance of identical twins: at once appealing and somewhat perverse. When Polly starts impersonating her famous sister, that tension is magnified. What starts out as amusing is eventually undercut by Polly’s selfishness and disregard for Amy’s wellbeing. The comedy veers into troubling territory, the trope of the twin enabling the variance that Neale suggests is key to genre filmmaking.
Regardless of their representation, there is a common, uncanny sensibility that identical twins bring to the screen. Whether in a horror, thriller or comedy, these cinematic twins lead us back to our own unconscious anxieties and desires. Perhaps the real terror or hilarity ultimately lies in the distant trace of that first ‘meeting’ with ourselves – the one that set restlessness and dissatisfaction in motion forevermore.
|1||For a detailed explanation of Lacan’s mirror stage, see Adrian Johnston, ‘The Mirror Stage, the Ego, and the Subject’, in ‘Jacques Lacan’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013, <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan/#MirStaEgoSub>, accessed 2 November 2017.|
|2||Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink, W. W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 2006 , p. 77, emphasis in original.|
|3||Anne Billson, ‘Crash and Squirm’, The Guardian, 31 October 2008, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/oct/31/horror>, accessed 2 November 2017.|
|4||Geoff King, Film Comedy, Wallflower Press, London, 2002, p. 5.|
|5||Steve Neale, ‘Questions of Genre’, in Robert Stam & Toby Miller (eds), Film and Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2000, p. 165.|
|6||This idea is taken further in the Tropfest-winning short Carmichael & Shane (Alex Weinress, 2006), in which a single parent urges other parents of twins to ‘choose a favourite’. Lurking below the humour is the genuinely subversive idea that twins represent a surplus or excess that is difficult to integrate into the social fabric.|
|7||Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, trans. David McLintock, Penguin, London, 2003 , p. 124.|