M. Butterfly (1993)

Rating: C+

Dir: David Cronenberg
Star: Jeremy Irons, John Lone, Barbara Sukowa, Ian Richardson

It’s interesting, viewed in the light of subsequent Cronenberg works, most notably A History of Violence. It also deals with a character who isn’t the person he pretends to be, and the dark secret, tears apart the most important relationship in his life. Here, however, the focus is not on the deceiver, but the deceived: Rene Gallimard (Irons) is an accountant at the French embassy in Beijing, who meets and falls in love with Song Liling (Lone), a Peking Opera actor who masquerades as a woman. It’s somewhat a reversal of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, where the submissive Oriental woman kills herself for love: here, “she” holds all the cards. [This was based on the real case of diplomat Bernard Boursicot, ensnared by a male opera singer, Shi Pei-Pu, who pretended to be a woman in order to get him to reveal state secrets – though it took place after the Cultural Revolution setting used here.]

The main problem is that this isn’t really “convincing”. Not so much Lone playing a woman, which is credible enough; it’s more the relationship between them is not given sufficient time or effort to make it seem valid. Gallimard is, apparently, happily married, but after hearing one quick warble from Song, he gallops off to woo her. His motivations are never really explored, and it also comes as something of a surprise to discover that his pillow-talk apparently consists of precise troop numbers. There’s no denying the performances are fine, however, and this stops the film from toppling over, into any of the number of potential pot-holes en route. The final scene, too, has a poetic, almost operatic quality, with a nice resonance to it. However, perhaps I’ve seen the basic story-line echoed on one too many Jerry Springer episodes, for this now to have much impact.

Original review [18] – This adaptation of the play was all but buried on its release here, but to me, doesn’t seem such an aberration for the man. Telling the story of a French diplomat who falls in love with a Peking Opera star, only to discover she is a) a spy and b) a he, it remains true to the ideal of “body horror” and is nigh impossible for any heterosexual male to watch without squirming. Suddenly discovering the woman you love is a man must rank pretty highly among male nightmares, so a tender love scene between a man and a man-pretending-to-be-a-woman make for uncomfortable viewing, and a nice reversal of the female fears seen in Dead Ringers. Also note the echoes of Videodrome, most notably at the end where [Warning: plot revelations imminent!] the hero commits suicide, seeing it as the only way out of an otherwise impossible situation. [End of plot revelations!] With disturbingly great performances from Irons and Lone, this has all the makings of a misunderstood classic, even if you may want to wash your hands afterwards. A-