M. Butterfly

"Bad"

M. Butterfly Review


In Mel Brooks' The Producers, the characters played by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel pay a visit to the Park Avenue home of eccentric theatrical director Roger De Bris, who greets them in a flowing peignoir. "Max," Wilder querulously points out to Mostel, "He's wearing a dress." "No kidding?" Mostel remarks dryly. Mostel may just as well be the audience surrogate for M. Butterfly, particularly for an audience with fond memories of David Henry Hwang's operatic romance and theatrical tragedy in its stage incarnation. David Cronenberg's film adaptation (with a script by Hwang) is a failure for many of the reasons that the stage production was a success, but the film is additionally hampered by Cronenberg's '90s lurch towards conventionality. Like a transvestite on a desert island, M. Butterfly is all dressed up with no place to go.

Based on a true incident involving a French diplomat who carried on an affair of 18 years with a man that the diplomat thought was a woman, M. Butterfly begins in 1964 Beijing, when French foreign service employee René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) becomes smitten with Chinese opera songster Song Liling (John Lone). Before long Gallimard is enamored with Song Liling and they begin their Affair to Remember, but bracketed by the condition that Gallimard will not be allowed to feast his eyes upon Song Liling sans clothes. Gallimard agrees to the strictures but, as he climbs up the diplomatic ladder, the Communist government gets into the love affair, corralling Song Liling to become an informant for the government. When Gallimard's lust can no longer be contained and he demands nudity, Song Liling runs out of Gallimard's life and he becomes a lovelorn husk, forever pining for his lost love. He leaves China and accepts a two-bit diplomatic job, but then Song Liling appears again to Gallimard, just in time for Gallimard's arrest and subsequent sensational trial for treason, which exposes his affair for the sham it is.

What made M. Butterfly work on the stage was its exploitation of the artifice within the theater. On a stage, with the theater audience in fixed locations from the proscenium, the actor playing Song Liling could movingly convince both Gallimard and the theater audience that Song Liling was Gallimard's romantic ideal. But the cinematic sense is different. Rather than playing to a distant audience of communal spectators, a film exploits its immediacy and illusion of realism to pull each audience member into the reality of a particular film. And Cronenberg, in a self-flagellating bit of self-destruction, makes no attempt to disguise the pretense in Song Liling's image. When John Lone parades around in mascara and speaks in an asexual monotone, the film audience discovers itself staring at John Lone's whiskers underneath his makeup and not buying into Gallimard's sexual obsession. This complete inversion of the play's style and raison d'être runs roughshod over film and story sense. Instead of Gallimard as the doomed romantic, he becomes a self-deluded idiot, and the ill-fated romance of the play becomes a sketch from MAD TV.

At that point in Cronenberg's career, after rubbing viewers' noses in the immediate specific physicality of sexual and biological terror (The Brood, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch) and not getting ahead with his mortgage payments, it seemed like a sure thing for Cronenberg to take a then-hit Broadway play and lurch to the mundane for accolades and moola. But I doubt that Cronenberg was happy with the result. I can bet Hwang wasn't happy. One can almost imagine Hwang doing another bit from The Producers, lurching at Cronenberg after a screening and shouting like Mostel, "You lousy fruit, you ruined me!"

Mah jongg!



Facts and Figures

Run time: 101 mins

In Theaters: Friday 1st October 1993

Box Office Worldwide: $1.5M

Production compaines: Geffen Pictures, Warner Bros.

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 1.5 / 5

IMDB: 6.8 / 10

Cast & Crew

Starring: as René Gallimard, as Song Liling, as Jeanne Gallimard, as Ambassador Toulon, Annabel Leventon as Frau Baden, as Agent Etancelin, Shizuko Hoshi as Comrade Chin

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