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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1993)

13. M. Butterfly

When I first started getting into David Cronenberg as a teenager, primarily attracted by the fucked-up horror movies he made in the eighties and seventies, most of his films were commercially available. Even oddities like “Fast Company” and his early student films quickly came to home video. Yet one of Cronenberg's movies remain available only on VHS for a long time, giving it a mysterious vibe. This is not the only reason “M. Butterfly” probably remains the director's least discussed work. Though based on a Tony-awarding stage play, the film had only a limited release in 1993 and received little critical attention. A re-evaluation of “M. Butterfly” hasn't come yet, leaving the film the most overlooked of Cronenberg's career.

Rene Gallimard is a French diplomat who, beginning in 1964, is assigned to China. While living in Beijing with his wife, he sees the opera “Madame Butterfly.” He finds himself attracted to Song Liling, the singer starring in the opera. He pursues Song, eventually beginning a romantic affair with the singer. Rene seems ignorant of one thing: In traditional Chinese opera, all parts are played by men. Rene and Song carry on an affair for years, Song eventually spying on Rene and reporting back to Red China intelligence. Never, during all this time, does the Frenchman ever acknowledge that his lover is actually a man.

The main point behind “M. Butterfly” is obvious. This is a film about the ways Westerners fetishize Asian women. After watching “Madame Butterfly,” Rene and Song talk about the opera. The singer points out that, while the music is beautiful, the film feeds into the stereotypes of Asian women as subservient, sexually pliable, naive, and in awe of Western men. This conversation seems to go completely over Gallinard's head. He quickly decides that Song Liling will be his flawless Asian lover, who will obey his demands and serve his desires. Song puts herself in the role of slave for her Anglo lover, possibly because it makes him easier to spy on. There are other obvious indicators of the film's themes of imperialism, such as when Rene talks about the Chinese dismissively or assumes America will win the war in Vietnam just by force of racial purity.

These political themes only seem to interest Cronenberg so much. Instead, his “M. Butterfly” is more preoccupied with what Rene sees Song Lilong as. Inside his mind, Song is Rene's perfect love. He believes everything she says. When she announces that she's pregnant and must leave him for a time, he buys it. When she returns with their child – actually a baby Song procured for this moment – he accepts the boy as his own. Maybe he accepts these things because he believes a foreigner could not outsmart a superior white man like him. Or, the film seems to suggest, maybe it's because the perfect love that exists in his mind, and probably only in his mind, is more important than the facts. Rene creates a fantasy and Song is at the center of it. He willingly denies reality to keep that fantasy alive.

I've never seen a performance of “M. Butterfly” nor read the stage play. However, from what I've heard about it, the play sounds more critical of Rene. It seems to depict him as a buffoon, an imperialist blinded by his own prejudice who is eventually punished for his arrogance. Cronenberg's “M. Butterfly” seems more sympathetic to the Frenchman's feelings. It's true that Gallinard is an overly self-assured white man taken advantage of by a more wily foreigner. However, the film depicts his impossible love for Song as a somewhat quixotic quest, foolish but utterly sincere. In the end, rejected by his love personally and factually, he recreates himself as his perfect butterfly, mythologizing his own feelings and story. There's certainly room for criticism of the man's actions but his devotion is kind of beautiful.

“M. Butterfly” seems to lead its audience to ask one question. Is Rene truly unaware of Song Lilong's actual gender, completely fooled by the opera singer's facade? Or is he aware that Song is a man and ignoring the facts to preserve his perfect fantasy? Is the man totally ignorant or just deluding himself? “M. Butterfly” does not provide a clear answer either way. When he sees Song dressed as a man for the first time, he smiles, as if he's just happy to see his love. Afterwards, Song reveals himself to Rene, stripping naked. The Frenchman seemingly refuses to acknowledge that this man is the same person he's loved for years. Ultimately, it's up to the viewer to decide. I believe Rene knows the truth but ignores it to preserve his fantasy. But the film doesn't say either way.

Supposedly, Cronenberg was such a fan of the play that, when a film adaptation was announced, he volunteered himself to direct. It's easy to see why the material appealed to him. “M. Butterfly” tackles many of the director's favorite themes. There's issues of identity, as Song is playing a role for Rene and is, to a degree, absorbed by it. There's no body horror in “M. Butterfly” but the way the story blurs gender lines suggests a certain degree of physical transformation. The most Cronenbergian aspect of “M. Butterfly” is how it depicts the power the mind has over the body. Rene's fantasy of Song, for the Frenchman anyway, is so powerful that it displaces the physical reality of the situation. Whether he knows the truth or not, Song Lilong is a woman inside Rene Gallimard's mind. The internal – the fantasy of the perfect Asian lover – disrupts the external, that Song Lilong is a man. And what would be more Cronenbergian than that?

Over the years, David Cronenberg has not worked with the same leading men that often. No matter how well his collaborations with Jeff Goldblum or Peter Weller worked out, they never made another movie together. With “M. Butterfly,” Jeremy Irons would make his second lead appearance in a Cronenberg movie. Clearly, “Dead Ringers” was a beneficial teaming for both of them. Irons is excellent as Gallimard. Irons' natural erudite quality makes it easy for him to play the role of a conceited diplomat in a foreign country. Yet the role provides plenty of opportunities for Irons to be more vulnerable. He conveys the passion of Rene's love and the pain it ultimately causes him beautifully.

When “M. Butterfly” was released in 1993, much of the criticism of the film was directed at John Lone's performances as Song Lilong. Critics said he was not convincing as a woman, with his deep voice and obviously masculine build. It's a rather silly criticism, as I don't think Lone is suppose to be convincing as a woman to anyone but Rene. Truthfully, Lone is also extremely good in the part. Lone does a great job of conveying the ambiguity of Song's feelings towards Rene. Spying on the diplomat is Song's job but the opera singer does seem to have some feelings for the man. There's a tragic quality to Song's character arc too, as he ends up rejected by someone who clearly meant something to him.

There's a lot of chew on in “M. Butterfly.” The film clearly has a lot to say about the relationship between men and women. In one key moment, Song says that “only a man truly knows what a woman should be,” further pointing towards the film's themes about the role fantasy plays in love. The political element of the film, however, ends up being background. The espionage subplot is barely focused on, only coming to the forefront in a few scenes. We see Red China soldiers marching in the streets or creative types sent off to labor camps. When he returns to France, years later, Rene spots college students organizing communism themed marches, getting into conflict with the local police. While this links “M. Butterfly” to a very specific time and place, it's not what the film is really about.

His third collaboration with Peter Suschitzky, “M. Butterfly” is as lovely looking as the director's prior two projects with the cinematographer. The scenes of Rene and Song together, especially the one true love scene they have together, are shot with a sweaty intimacy. The story is freed from its stage-bound roots without loosing that sense of familiarity with the characters. The film also embraces the beauty of the China as a country, luxuriating in the color and warmth of the culture and people. It's a really pretty movie, full of deep shadows and cordial colors.

If there's a problem I have with the film, it's that the progression of the plot can sometimes be a little hard to follow. “M. Butterfly's” story takes place over the course of about twenty years. However, we rarely get a sense of that time passing. Aside from a few dates popping up on-screen, we don't often get a specific year for these events. In the last act, the exact length of the love affair between Rene and Song is sprung on the audience and it's surprising. The story certainly doesn't seem to have been set over two decades. I know montages are pretty cheesy devices but maybe one or two would have done a good job of establishing how much time has passed.

It's easy to assume “M. Butterfly” was Cronenberg making a serious stab at respectability, as he leaves behind the more extreme surface elements that characterized his earlier film. Yet a closer look shows that “M. Butterfly” fits right into the director's career. At the time, Lone's performance and a perceived inferiority to the stage play had critics mostly dismissing the movie. There's been no attempt to reclaim the film since then. But maybe 'M. Butterfly” deserves another look, as it's an interesting motion picture and shows the director's obsessions evolving in new, more personal directions. [Grade: B]

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