Film and TV

Conjoined at Birth

There is something fairy-tale-like, but also deeply human, about Twin Falls Idaho, a gentle, beautifully realized tale of love and intimacy that marks the feature-film debut of identical twins Mark and Michael Polish. Michael directed the film, and both brothers wrote the script and star in it. It is what they star as that will catch many viewers off-guard. The brothers play 25-year-old conjoined -- more commonly referred to as Siamese -- twins named Blake and Francis Falls, who have come to an unnamed city to find the mother who abandoned them at birth.

Attached on one entire side of their bodies, from their shoulders to their feet, the pair has three legs and two arms between them. They also share several vital organs. Blake (Mark Polish), the more outgoing of the brothers, is also the healthier one; it is his heart that pumps blood through Francis and keeps him alive. Despite their gruesome physical condition, the brothers are clean-cut, intelligent and witty, but they are understandably cautious around other people. Their experience with the outside world has not been kind; freaks of nature, they have been subjected to ridicule, expressions of horror and harassment all of their lives. They avoid going out in public except on Halloween, the only night of the year when they appear "normal."

Although the movie could easily be described as a relationship drama, Twin Falls Idaho is actually a love story or, more precisely, two love stories. The first concerns the extraordinary emotional and spiritual bonds that exist between the brothers, two individuals with very different personalities who together form a third distinct being. As Myles (Patrick Bauchau, wonderfully wise and sympathetic), a doctor who visits the brothers when Francis is sick, explains, "If you put two single bills together into one [two-dollar] bill, it is worth twice its value. But tear that in half and it loses all its value. The strength is in the bond of the two."

The film's second love story revolves around Blake and Penny (Michele Hicks, an alluring, gamine-like beauty making a promising screen-acting debut), a prostitute whose initial aversion to the brothers gives way to genuine affection. Having shied away from emotional attachments in her own life, Penny finds herself increasingly drawn to these two men who, quite literally, depend upon one another for survival.

When Twin Falls Idaho premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter, some critics misconstrued it as a story about a bizarre love triangle. Others mistakenly placed the film in David Lynch territory, presumably because of the unorthodox subject matter and its unusually evocative visual style. Both sets of reviewers missed the boat entirely. Although Blake and Francis do exchange harsh words in one scene, this is most definitely not a picture about a woman who comes between two brothers. And save for the subject matter, there is nothing Lynchian about the film. In fact, the cold and distant emotional landscapes that figure in so many of Lynch's movies couldn't be further from the gentle terrain that supports Twin Falls Idaho.

The movie never presents the twins as freaks, although certain characters in the film treat them as such. Certainly their physical appearance is shocking -- and is a source of curiosity -- but the actors create a sense of empathy for their characters so immediately that their physical deformity quickly becomes less noticeable. Both men are phenomenally good. In understated but touching performances, they manage to suggest separate and distinctive personalities at the same time that they are conveying a bond of such heartrending intimacy that it is almost impossible to think of one without the other. There is a stillness about Blake and Francis, an absence of overt movement, that stems in the main from their anatomical defect but which is in keeping with their halting shyness. And although they constantly glance at one another and whisper into each other's ear, one senses that they are able to communicate without words.

Director Michael Polish and his cinematographer, David Mullen, turned to the Dutch painter Vermeer for inspiration when it came time to devise a lighting plan. The seventeenth-century artist favored highly directional source lighting, and his paintings, rich in yellows and blues, give the impression of tableaux. So does Twin Falls Idaho, which is often bathed in a warm golden light. Vermeer was also a key influence on Peter Greenaway in A Zed & Two Noughts, another movie about identical twins. While the two films are miles apart thematically, emotionally and dramatically, their heightened lighting, sense of composition and use of rich color give both a feeling of beautiful still photographs.

The most moving sequence in Twin Falls Idaho occurs toward the end of the story. Shot in black-and-white Super 8, it has the dreamlike quality of a silent film. To reveal what the scene is about would give away too much of the plot; suffice it to say that Polish and Mullen have achieved an ideal marriage of image and emotion, while composer Stuart Matthewman's simple musical accompaniment adds to the poignancy. This brief sequence packs an enormous emotional wallop that belies the simplicity of its idea and execution.

Like the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Twin Falls Idaho is very much about the inner tenderness and beauty of its outwardly grotesque protagonists. Through their writing, acting and direction, Michael Polish and Mark Polish make us forget Blake and Francis's diabolical exterior and see only the souls that exist beneath it.

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Jean Oppenheimer

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