M Butterfly is a bit of an oddity in the Cronenberg cannon. I may be the only one who holds this sentiment towards the film, but I can’t help it. Inspired by real events and based on the play of the same name (David Henry Hwang wrote it and then adapted it to a film script for Cronenberg), M Butterfly is the tale of a love so intense, to true, that it couldn’t help but exist despite its nature given the widely accepted social norms of the time. There’s no obvious social commentary denouncing those who cannot accept true love when it doesn’t conform to their expectations. Much of this is underplayed, as is usually the case in Cronenberg movies. What is this great love I write about?
René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons, in his second starring role in a Cronenberg film) is a French diplomat stationed in Beijing during the 1960s. He’s a bean count, a number Nazi… an accountant. He annoys many of his colleagues quite frankly, mostly because he spoils their fun in his precision with the budget and spending numbers. French-China relations are on the rocks to say the least given the post WWII international political climate. In fact, Chinese relations with the West in general are not in the best of shape, and this does not only apply to high end bureaucrats and diplomats, as can be seen from the attitude displayed by some of the more ordinary Chinese citizens. René himself is a witness to this hostility when he meets a local opera singer, Song Lily, after a mesmerizing performance of Madame Butterfly in front of a primarily Western audience. René is immediately enchanted by this performance, and especially by this performer. Intrigued by Song’s beauty and exotic qualities (exotic when compared to René’s typical standards). As he walks Song home, he encounters a clear resistance on the artists behalf as the former blocks away his charm. Song shuns all the Western ideals of beauty and love that René holds dear. The artist finds particularly revolting the emotional bedrock of the opera itself, which has a Chinese woman fall in love with a Western man, and completely give herself to him, to the point of taking her own life upon realizing that her love is no more. The thought of a Chinese woman uprooting herself for the sake of the corrupt western man is the source of anger for Song, although the performer displays such emotion in a very restrained way. China’s culture and heritage need not be influenced by Western decadence.
Needless to say, Song isn’t really reciprocating René’s at first. But this sudden rush of passion isn’t easy to quell, and so René continues to visit Song during performances and at the performer’s home. It takes some time for René to crack Song’s armour, but he eventually succeeds and the two begin a passionate affair, albeit a sexless one. It is during this time that René gains prominence in the French embassy and is privy to more important documents and government secrets. Little does he know, until it is too late, that that is precisely what Song has hoped for all along, for Song is not merely a performing artist, but a spy for the Chinese government.
From there on, as is so often the case, things take a turn for the bitter. To review the film properly, it becomes absolutely impossible to avoid the unavoidable: Song is, to René's remarkable surprise (and everyone else’s in the film), a man. All these long years, René was in fact madly in love with a man… Had he known this during the affair? More importantly, with love at stake, does it even matter?
Sexual tension, issues related to the physical and psychological, we won’t do the ‘this is what Cronenberg does’ shtick. If you’re still in this marathon, you know this already. What’s interesting is the ending in this case. The revelation itself affects much of what came before, especially if you hadn’t realized Song was a man (something I’ll get to in a moment). It’s just really interesting to reminisce about all those scenes in which René begged for Song’s love and other scenes when they showed deep passion for one another. For Song, it was a job, a duty for the country and its interests. Some would consider that a great sacrifice, to give one’s self to a stranger for a cause, let alone someone of the same sex. Is Song a homosexual or has he perfected his role so much that he is living it, has become his character and let go of his former self temporarily? Both are interesting ideas in their own right. When discussing with one of his superiors, Song explains that it takes a man to understand the behaviour of a woman. I’m tempted to think that such a statement supports the second theory, that Song has in fact lost himself in this new character. Then again, perhaps this assignment has merely enabled Song to be himself, his true self, with his straight man persona being the mask. That makes him a uniquely effective agent, and certainly a uniquely malleable persona.
René is another ballgame entirely. The film makes some relatively effective choices in never providing any big moment during the affair when the French diplomat could have realized the shocking truth about Song and confront his lover. Rather, the affair plays out like any other affair would, minus the sex of course. What’s fascinating is how the mannerisms of Song, as convincing as they may be, don’t hide his true biological self. I’d like to know if anybody watched the movie and not realized that Song was a dude. I have a hard time believing it. There’s something about him, his voice I think and certain facial features, that give it away. But all this makes René’s attraction (infatuation?) all the more curious. Does he see past the mask? If so, then he has chosen not to betray his emotions and give in to what his heart asks of him. Maybe that means the film tackles repressed homosexuality. M.Butterfly is a love letter to those who are struggling with ‘coming out of the closet’. On the other hand, if René really hasn’t noticed, not even doubted for a moment, that Song is a man, well that’s just screwed up. Screwed up in a interesting, ‘awesome twist’ kind of way, but screwed up nonetheless. Perhaps this is all working on a subconscious level, wherein something in René is triggered without him realizing it at first.
The final moments of the film provide a tragic twist of fate. After being found guilty of treason René is incarcerated. Inside the slammer, he performs a sort of one-man play, a monologue, to the other inmates in which he slowly dresses up as a woman, telling the story of his last love. Before slitting his throat (literally, not as an act), he cries out that he is both René Gallimard and Madame Butterly. With this, the roles of René and Song are completely reversed. The latter is now dressed like an ordinary man whereas the former has become has become another being. More poignantly however is how René has ended his life in identical fashion to the character of Madame Butterfly in the play, which is precisely what had disgusted Song earlier in the film. René and Song have ‘lived the play’ so to speak, although the ethnicities of the characters have been reversed.
The two leads give solid performances. John Lone inhabits this curious character with plenty of conviction. The fact that I knew he was a man made the performance all the more intriguing. Him trying to be a woman and almost succeeding made for a strange but interesting viewing. It’s like when you look at something that strikes you as odd but you can’t turn away. You aren’t attracted or repulsed, but you look because it is out of the norm. Irons is also good here, particularly in the final act when the reality of the situation hits him in the face. There aren’t many poor Jeremy Irons performances, and M. Butterfly doesn’t contradict that necessarily, but apart from the final 20 minutes or so, it’s not mesmerizing. I thought his casting was a bit strange. I can only assume that hiring the English actor had much to do with popularity (read=marketability) among Enlish-speaking audiences, the primary target. British actors are more recognizable than French actors by and large. It’s just…everyone in that French embassy speaks with a pompous British accent. Forgive me for being finicky about the matter, but I’m sure there were French who were more than suitable to play the role of René and the other diplomats.
That’s minor quibbling however. A bigger issue I have with is regarding the overall direction and mood of the film. Oh god, a problem with the direction? Cronenberg’s direction?!?! Calm down, don’t get your boxers and panties in a knot, I don’t think it’s a poorly directed film. It’s just fine. The style of M. Butterfly seems to lack any kind of Cronenberg punch to the gut. There’s very little about it that’s particularly Cronenberg-esque, notwithstanding the final act. The movie feels like a historical romance drama and not much more. The director typically brings a ‘je ne sais quoi’ tone to his films that I didn’t get with M. Butterfly. There is also the matter of the timeline of the story. During René’s trial the prosecutors are stunned how the accused did not see through Song ‘during all those years.’ I didn’t have a great sense of that timeline however, it never felt as though that much time has elapsed in fact. The entire story could have taken place within 4 or 5 months.
When discovering that M. Butterfly, which I had never seen before, was part of Cronenberg’s filmmography, I relished the opportunity to potentially champion a Cronenberg film that is often overlooked. Well, I can certainly recommend it, but I can’t champion it. As good as the final act is, it doesn't change the fact that my first viewing of the first two acts didn't provide anything magnificent. As a film I think it’s very well made for the most part. As part of this director’s filmmography, it’s one of his lesser efforts. Of course, with a rock solid track record as Cronenberg’s, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.