David Cronenberg: M. Butterfly (1993)


M. Butterfly is perhaps the least-seen and least-appreciated film of David Cronenberg’s career. It lacks the novelty of his debut, sound-free features like Stereo and Crimes of the Future or the cult appeal of works like Naked Lunch and eXistenZ. It isn’t bloodsoaked, nor does it concern itself with sci-fi-tinged scenarios, with sinister scientists and organizations manipulating society from behind the scenes. Instead, this adaptation of the Tony-winning play by David Henry Hwang (who also wrote the screenplay) is sweepingly romantic, even tasteful in parts. It’s primarily concerned with deconstructing the colonial notions of works like Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, but it also plays into Cronenberg’s fascination with repression, misogyny, and the transformation of the flesh. It’s not entertaining or atmospheric in the same ways that Scanners or Videodrome are, but it is nevertheless a fascinating work of psychological drama by cinema’s most clinical filmmaker.

M. Butterfly follows René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons), a French diplomat in 1960s China, who falls in love with a Chinese opera singer, Song Liling (John Lone). When René first meets Song, she is singing Madama Butterfly at a party and he becomes infatuated with her. Soon enough, he has spurned his own wife and takes Song as his lover, who uses her relationship with René to wrest state secrets from him and spy for the Communist government. Eventually, René is discovered and arrested for espionage along with Song, and only then does he realize that Song has been a man the whole time. René has been ignorant of (or deliberately ignoring) the fact that in Chinese opera, all singers are men, so the truth of Song’s gender is not so much a secret as an expression of René’s deep repression as an individual.

Like Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly was inspired by real life events, drawing inspiration from the case of diplomat Bernard Boursicot and spy Shi Pei Pu. David Henry Hwang used this story as the basis for his play, which played with its broad strokes and deconstructed Madama Butterfly in an attempt to explore notions of Orientalism and the colonial relationship between East and West. Cronenberg leaves many of these notions intact in his film, although Orientalism is not the main focus of the film as it is in the play.

To be sure, the film’s plot hinges on the Western foolishness of René, who is captivated by the Eastern myths that Song creates about herself and her country. It is only because he believes these Orientalist notions so wholeheartedly that he both falls in love with and is duped by Song. In the scene where they meet, René is enraptured by Puccini’s music being sung by what he sees as a gorgeous Chinese woman; he’s seduced by the mythic energy of the story of a “Submissive Oriental woman and a cruel white man,” as Song phrases it. But already his ignorance is apparent. He doesn’t recognize that Song is a man in drag, nor does he recognize her thinly-veiled contempt for westerners as the real thing; instead, he interprets it as a seductive playfulness.

When he goes to the Chinese opera a few scenes later to watch Song’s performance, he doesn’t understand the convention of men playing all the roles. He’s ignorant of Chinese culture, as all the westerners are. For instance, early in the film, René’s wife, Jeanne (Barbara Sukowa), relates a lesson her father taught that “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” Later, at a party, we overhear the French diplomats discussing the political foolishness of the Chinese, having a laugh over the ignorance of their Eastern hosts. At every turn, Cronenberg and Hwang highlight the foolishness of the westerners, but they also contrast the differences in the attitudes of René and all the other westerners. While the other westerners are dismissive of the Chinese, René is transfixed by them. They are all under the influence of Orientalist thought, but only René is an obvious victim because of it, opening himself up to manipulation by desperately wanting the myths about China to be true.

Much of M. Butterfly’s focus on Orientalism and purposeful deconstruction of Madama Butterfly is made explicit in the dialogue and the scenarios Cronenberg puts in the film. The early conversations between René and Song address relations between East and West while also mirroring the very roles they’re commenting on—Song as the seductive Chinese woman and René as the cruel, but also romantic, western man. Thus, the film foregrounds its themes and plays as a meta-narrative, nakedly investigating the Orientalism of works like Madama Butterfly and East-West relations through their enactment. In one scene, René even comments that he thinks “it’s possible to achieve a little distance” from his emotions, as if giving voice to Cronenberg in this moment and his clinical, objective approach to drama. Cronenberg knows that M. Butterfly deconstructs Orientalist notions and East-West conventions, while also embodying them. It’s a film about a white man going native, and an attack on such narrative conventions.

However, Cronenberg does not limit himself to this one interpretation of the work. Hwang’s play is more viciously focused on this aspect of the story, while Cronenberg, ever the Freudian, makes the film as much about repression as Orientalism. While René’s infatuation with Song is an example of Orientalist romance, it’s also a case of a man repressing his own homosexuality, and perhaps even his gender identity. Like Bill Lee in Naked Lunch, where Lee concocts a scenario of espionage to excuse his own homosexual acts, René Gallimard creates a fantasy about Chinese women that will allow him to live out his own homosexuality. In both scenarios, the man insists he is not gay; his homosexual acts are either a cover for his work or actually heterosexual acts in the “Oriental style.” It’s no accident that Song concocts a cover for her sexual acts with René, explaining that “They teach us things—our mothers—about pleasing a man,” before giving him a blowjob and then having anal sex with him later. It gives René the psychological “out” for the sexual acts he’s about to engage in; it lets him indulge himself without admitting his homosexuality.

René’s repression is so complete that he actually believes Song when she says that she’s pregnant, despite their never having had vaginal intercourse. Of course, it’s important to point out that the film is never explicit in its sex scenes or in its dialogue. In fact, unlike most of Cronenberg’s works, M. Butterfly is tasteful and suggestive in its content, instead of revelling in the excess of flesh and blood that you find in works like Naked Lunch. The transgressive acts depicted in the film start mildly, such as tea in Song’s parlour (a scandalous behaviour in traditional Chinese culture), and even Song’s gender is only implied for the majority of the film, instead of explicitly commented upon. It’s almost tempting to say that Cronenberg is playing the “grown-up, adult” filmmaker for the first time in his career, even as he deconstructs the very notions of taste and romance he plays with. It’s as if Cronenberg has repressed his horror-movie impulses at the same time that René represses his sexuality.

However, even if Cronenberg restrains himself in terms of explicit content, he doesn’t restrain himself from exploring his usual themes. In many ways, M. Butterfly works as an extension of the themes introduced in Naked Lunch. In addition to the notion of homosexual repression, M. Butterfly also explores misogyny and the ways that men conceive of women as purely invented “things” and not autonomous beings in their own right. Early in the film, René spurns his own French wife for the attention of a Chinese woman. Even if we haven’t yet realized that Song is a man, we still understand that René is giving up the reality of his western wife for the fiction of an eastern mistress; he is rejecting the woman as individual and taking up with woman as fiction. Later, once we realize that Song is creating a larger fiction about sexuality and ethnicity to ensnare René, Cronenberg heightens the links between homosexuality and Orientalism, similar to the connections we get in Naked Lunch.

The camerawork begins to only sensualize Song’s “man as woman” and not actual women in the film. When René has a tryst with a mature European woman, Cronenberg shoots her naked on the bed with such a frank lack of sexuality as to be almost shocking; he withholds any sexualization on camera from the women in order to reflect René’s new tastes. Actual naked womanhood is not appealing to him because it is not a creation for him; however, Song’s strategic nakedness, so as to hide her penis, is seductive because it creates a fiction for René. All of this culminates in the film’s definitive line, when Song discusses the subterfuge with her Communist handler and how she’s able to keep René convinced of her fiction: “It’s because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” For René, womanhood is purely a male construction; he has no interest in the real thing. When he finally discovers Song’s gender late in the film, he rejects her since the fiction has dissolved; he tells her, “I am a man. I loved a woman, created by a man. Everything else simply falls short.”

This final act of rejection leads to a denouement where René undergoes the transformation to womanhood himself, creating a persona of “Madame Butterfly” while in prison prior to his suicide in front of an audience. Thus, the very-Cronenbergesque theme of transformation becomes another of M. Butterfly’s key preoccupations. About 20 minutes into the film, René receives a dragonfly from an elderly Chinese man he meets by the canal. René marvels at it, and although the purpose of the scene is opaque in the moment, it becomes more clear as the film progresses and we learn the facts about Song and witness René’s final transformation. Dragonflies represent transformation and change within most world cultures, and this scene hints at the radical transformations that are to come later in the film.

In one sense, the key transformation of the film comes when Song arrives in court dressed as a man for the first time. Cronenberg uses a rare wide shot in the scene and pushes in on Song as she walks into the courtroom in a suit. He cuts to René’s stunned reaction and we realize that he has only now admitted the truth of Song’s sexual identity. Of course, this is not a reversion to “true form” for Song. In fact, to the viewer, this is a stunning transformation away from what we’ve come to expect and grown accustomed to. Cronenberg comments that “We were playing several things with that reaction shot. One of them was, ‘Why is she dressed that way? Why is she pretending to be a man?’ A little laugh and then a little confusion and then a little feeling of, ‘I knew anyway but I didn’t want to know.’” That summarizes both the viewer’s reaction and René’s reaction to the scene; it both clarifies the implicit understanding of the film, and reveals a transformation from fantasy to reality, disturbing the comfortable fictions that have been in place to this point.

Of course, the most important transformation in the film comes in the final moments, when René tells a story on stage in prison and transforms himself into a Chinese woman using makeup and clothing. He describes how “I have been loved by the perfect woman,” and we assume he is talking about Song as a man, but as he completes his transformation, we realize that he is actually talking about himself, as he has now taken on the new identity of “Madame Butterfly.” He has become the fiction of the Chinese woman he has fallen in love with. And just as his transformation is complete, he slits his throat with his mirror, finalizing the transformation for all time. He has absorbed the Song character into himself permanently and forever.

Jeremy Irons is so powerful in this scene and throughout the film that M. Butterfly manages a bit of the romantic power that it so ruthlessly deconstructs throughout. Even though the film is an anti-romantic epic in many ways, refusing us the emotional satisfaction of the Orientalist love story as depicted in works like Madama Butterfly, but also refusing us the formal satisfaction of sweeping camerawork and epic panoramas such as we’d find in many epics taking place in “exotic” parts of the world, it still becomes a moving work because of the authentic emotional power of Irons’s and Lone’s performances as René and Song.

Thus, like Cronenberg’s greatest films, Dead Ringers and The Fly, M. Butterfly manages to comfortably exist within its own contradictions as a deconstruction of Orientalist romance and male fantasy, and romantic fantasy itself. It demonstrates the lie of the East-West romantic fantasy even as we become invested in the main players in this fiction. M. Butterfly was dismissed upon its release and has become mostly-forgotten over time, but it’s a powerful work of thematic deconstruction and another beautiful contradiction by Canada’s greatest filmmaker.

9 out of 10

M. Butterfly (1993, USA)

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by David Henry Hwang, based on his play; starring Jeremy Irons, John Lone, Barbara Sukowa, Ian Richardson.