Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the rote plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 74 (B+)
M. Butterfly is a curious entry in David Cronenberg’s filmography. It features none of the body horror that Cronenberg was famous for at the time, nor is it a strange hybrid the way Naked Lunch was. It’s far more restrained even than Dead Ringers and The Dead Zone, and it focuses on (gasp!) a love story. On paper, Cronenberg’s adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award winning play doesn’t sound much like a Cronenberg film at all. Furthermore, the film’s lukewarm reception among both critics and Cronenberg fans doesn’t make it the most enticing project in the director’s career. Yet M. Butterfly is an underrated effort overall: a tale of love unfulfilled, Cronenberg style.
Rene Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) is a French diplomat in Beijing in the early 1960s. Rene has fallen for Chinese soprano Song Liling (John Lone). Song uses Rene for information for the Chinese government, and eventually is forced to end their relationship. Rene returns to France, only to be joined by Song years later. But when Song is arrested by the French government for spying, Rene must acknowledge what he has either ignored or has been blissfully unaware of for twenty years: Song is a man.
There’s a common gripe among the detractors of this adaptation- John Lone is clearly a man, and it makes his deception of Rene a bit unbelievable. The film’s release a year after the similar (and stronger) The Crying Game certainly doesn’t do much for its favor. I don’t quite share the same qualm, but it’s true that John Lone doesn’t quite work, albeit for a different reason. The real problem is that everything he does is one-note and at the same level, as if he were afraid to engage the material on an emotional level. The character is supposed to be somewhat repressed, but the fundamental flaw of the film is that it’s difficult to believe Rene could fall for someone so flat.
Yet the film mostly works anyway, based off of Cronenberg’s direction and Jeremy Irons’ performance. Cronenberg doesn’t hit the same heights he reached in The Fly and Dead Ringers, but he takes his usual chilliness down a notch to look at a person who never fully overcame his own reservations even as he grew more passionate about someone. Irons begins as a usual Jeremy Irons type- chilly, reserved- only to open up emotionally to another culture- or at least aspects of another culture. Madame Butterfly is, after all, about an idealized look at Asian culture from a Western point of view, and M. Butterfly is ultimately critical of that viewpoint. Cronenberg doesn’t hit hard enough on this aspect- he stripped away most of the politics of Hwang’s play- but instead focuses on a love story that he makes positively Cronenbergian.
The key issue is that the film version of M. Butterfly is not about deception, but rather self-deception. Rene is in love with a man but can’t admit it to himself. He has constructed a rigorous and intricate fantasy in order to convince himself he’s with a woman. He can act out on the same dominant fantasies he has for a woman, but he has to restrain himself from actually making love in order to keep up the fantasy. He argues that she’s the ideal woman, but Song questions why he chooses “a Chinese with a chest like a boy”. He answers back with “Not like a boy, an innocent schoolgirl chest”, but it’s a dodge. He has to keep up the illusion. It’s not as fantastical an illusion as the one in Naked Lunch (where Peter Weller claims his homosexual actions are a front as an “agent”), but it’s effective nonetheless.
The tragedy of M. Butterfly, then, is that unlike Naked Lunch, the fantasy is restrictive rather than liberating, and Rene never fully understands his love until it’s far too late. “I loved the lie. It’s been destroyed”, as he says to Song after their trial. And as Rene performs seppuku before an audience in prison, he recounts his errors in character as Madame Butterfly- “The man I loved wasn’t worthy. He didn’t deserve a second glance, but instead I gave my love. All of my love.”. It’s a comment not on Song, but on himself. The performance of one lover carries over to a final performance by the other, where Rene transforms in a beautiful masquerade and finally admits, however obliquely, what the nature of his relationship was. M. Butterfly is flawed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, but it is still a moving and effective film, and it deserves to be more than a footnote in Cronenberg’s career.