M. Butterfly

David Cronenberg has made a handsome, respectful film out of David Henry Hwang's intriguing, Tony award-winning play, "M. Butterfly." Though carefully cast and set in the most exotic of locales, the drama lacks any real excitement, the director's glacial style aligning itself all too patly with Hwang's arid rhetoric. The story begins in Beijing in 1964,...read more

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David Cronenberg has made a handsome, respectful film out of David Henry Hwang's intriguing, Tony award-winning play, "M. Butterfly." Though carefully cast and set in the most exotic of locales, the drama lacks any real excitement, the director's glacial style aligning itself all too patly

with Hwang's arid rhetoric.

The story begins in Beijing in 1964, with the meeting of French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) and Song Liling (John Lone), a man who performs female roles in the Chinese Opera. The initially diffident, bigoted Gallimard is swept away by Song's charms, his love so blind that he never

realizes the girl of his dreams is, in fact, a man. Song is also a spy for the Chinese government, passing on secret information that Gallimard lets slip. To sustain his deception of Gallimard, Song employs a battery of ruses: darkened bedrooms, feigned shyness, and even, ultimately, the

production of a baby.

The couple's idyll is ruptured by the Cultural Revolution, with Song being forced to serve time on a work farm. Gallimard's breach of security is discovered and he is sentenced to jail in Paris. Song makes one final appearance in Gallimard's life and reveals his true gender, repelling Gallimard

and shattering his long-cherished illusions about Asian femininity. To the surging strains of the work's theme, Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," the fallen diplomat performs a re-enactment of that opera's tragic denouement before a prison audience.

M. BUTTERFLY earned largely negative reviews, many of which dwelled on the fact that Lone was too obviously a man, with stubble even showing in closeups. What remains ambiguous on stage comes under much closer scrutiny on film, with the camera probing into the very pores of an actor's face.

Cronenberg's intent was apparently to make the story work on a more abstract level, with Gallimard lost in such an impossible romantic/erotic fantasy that almost nothing can make him see the truth.

Part of the problem lies with Jeremy Irons's portrayal of Gallimard. The role was handled far more effectively on Broadway by John Lithgow, who invested the sketchy, puzzling character with a rueful, self-deprecating humor that provoked sympathy. In the film, Jeremy Irons comes across as little

more than an elegantly turned out, nerdish dupe. He's played variations on this role many times before, and the flared nostrils, resolutely set jaw, and burning eyes have become a little too familiar. John Lone, on the other hand, is terrific, surpassing B.D. Wong's stage interpretation. He uses

his sly androgyny and purring, Peter Lorre-style voice to seductive effect, and it's unfortunate that there's no responsive chemistry from Irons.

Cronenberg's handling of the romantic scenes is overly sterile, analogous to the director's soft-pedalling of the homoerotic content in NAKED LUNCH. In addition, Irons is too physically similar in type to Lone, making theirs a rather skeletal affair. (Onstage, the very dichotomy of Lithgow's

bulk vis-a-vis Wong's slightness was something of a piquant sexual joke.)

Hwang himself adapted his play, which could have used more opening up. The underpopulated feeling of the piece worked better on Broadway, with the pressure-cooker intensity of the actors' duet becoming continually more charged. Film demands more scope, and the other characters--Gallimard's wife

(Barbara Sukowa), his ambassador superior (Ian Richardson), a vicious Communist interrogator--are little more than walk-ons. Master stylist Cronenberg has, nevertheless, created a convincing mockup of Beijing and tries wherever possible to inject visual interest (a haunting shot of rainbow-hued

Chinese Opera props being consumed by a Communist bonfire; exteriors whenever feasible). The big finale is awash in seas of photogenic blood, but remains an essentially empty coup de theatre (which, incidentally, Hwang regurgitated for his screenplay of GOLDEN GATE, released the same year.) Howard

Shore's music is unobtrusive, and there's a colorful, animated credit sequence that's more imaginative than anything else in the film. (Nudity, adult situations, sexual situations, profanity, violence.)

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  • Released: 1993
  • Rating: R
  • Review: David Cronenberg has made a handsome, respectful film out of David Henry Hwang's intriguing, Tony award-winning play, "M. Butterfly." Though carefully cast and set in the most exotic of locales, the drama lacks any real excitement, the director's glacial s… (more)

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