M Butterfly Review

David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play M. Butterfly was a massive success on Broadway, winning numerous awards along with a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. It was natural therefore that there should have been interest in a film version but it took five years for such an adaptation to go into production. It’s not hard to see why because this is strong, difficult material dealing with sexual identity, espionage and politics and centring on a revelation which was certainly an impressive coup de theatre but would be very difficult to sustain on film without letting the audience in on the secret. Indeed, when David Cronenberg’s film of the play was released in October 1993 it was a notable flop and much criticised on the grounds that the ‘twist’ was easy to guess and that as a consequence the film didn’t work. Sixteen years on, it’s time to re-evaluate the film both as a dramatic work in itself and as part of Cronenberg’s oeuvre and it seems clear to me that, on both counts, it’s worthy of considerable praise.

Please note that the following review will contain numerous spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film or the play then you may wish to move straight down to the review of the DVD.

In 1964, Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat working in China, met an opera singer called Shi Pei Pu. He was immediately entranced and the two began a relationship which was somewhat hesitantly sexual. A year later, Shi informed Bernard that their union had produced child and presented him with a son. Although Boursicot kept being moved around South-East Asia, he continued the relationship and when the Chinese government attempted to stop him seeing Shi, he offered to pass confidential documents in return for access. Some years later, he brought Shi and the son to France where they lived as man and wife until the French security service arrested him on espionage charges. So far, so familiar; but what shocked the spectators at the trial and made headline news was a revelation made during the proceedings. When Boursicot claimed that he only passed documents in order to keep his lover and his child safe, it was revealed that Shi was actually a man and that he had, either through deliberate deceit or by omission, led Bernard to believe that he was female. Bernard was convicted of spying and attempted suicide in prison but survived. When asked about the affair he is quoted as saying, “When I believed it, it was a beautiful story.”

M. Butterfly is based closely on this case but changes the names, adds a downbeat ending and contains various references to Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly - the most ironic being that this is, essentially, a reversal of the racial and gender stereotype of the helpless Asian women loved and abandoned by the callous American male. Boursicot is here incarnated as Rene Gallimard, played in an astonishingly daring performance by Jeremy Irons, while Shi is called Song Liling and portrayed by John Lone. As the references to the opera suggest, this is tragedy at its most extravagantly melodramatic with Rene the helpless victim of his own hopeless desire.

David Cronenberg is often considered a cold and somewhat emotionless director, a label which I have always found frankly baffling. He has made some of the most emotionally devastating films I’ve ever seen, from the pure romantic tragedy of The Fly to the human wreckage of Crash and Spider and the heartbreaking Dead Ringers. He has an ability to touch the heart without ignoring the brain which marks him out among contemporary directors – David Lynch has a similar ability – and he is particularly good on the subject of one person’s desperate need for something or someone, and their yearning for requited love, meaning, redemption or some other kind of closure. Rene Gallimard fits in well alongside other Cronenbergian tragic heroes like Seth Brundle, the Mantle Twins, Johnny Smith and James Ballard, all of whom want what they can never have and are doomed to sadness and a despair which only death can ease. They all make grand gestures before death too; Gallimard, in a very edgy scene which Irons just about pulls off, makes himself up as the diva and, in front of the other prison inmates, mimes to Puccini just before committing suicide. In Jeremy Irons, Cronenberg found the perfect actor for his particular tone of wintry melancholy and it’s a shame that this subtle and nuanced performance hasn’t received as much attention as his work on Dead Ringers. Irons has a face which is ideal for expressing the yearning of unspoken desire and Gallimard is, for me, a signature role along with Humbert Humbert, Charles Ryder and the Mantle twins. It’s the same quality which made him such odd casting for Claus Von Bulow but that’s another matter.

On its theatrical release, the film was much criticised for the casting of the excellent John Lone as Song Liling; the complaint being that it is patently obvious right from the start that Song is male and that it would surely be impossible for anyone to be fooled. In response to this, a couple of observations should be made. Firstly, the film never pretends to try and fool the audience in the manner of, say, The Crying Game. John Lone is a well known actor and his contribution to the film was publicised in advance. We, essentially, are in on the deception and the point of the film is to observe the manner in which Rene manages to deceive himself into thinking that Song is a woman. In a way, this is simply another in a long line of Cronenberg characters with deviant sexual psychologies, ranging from Vaughan’s fetishisation of car accidents to the Elliot Mantle’s conviction that ‘normal’ women are sexually mutated. It’s clear that Rene is, for whatever reason, completely convinced that Song is a woman and that’s all that the film needs to establish. This is a character study, not an exercise in twisting narrative. Additionally, it can be pointed out that women were banned from the Peking Opera and that it was a convention for men to play female parts – so the fact that we know Song is male simply reflects the experience and expectations of most opera audiences of the period. We can surely pass over without comment another complaint, made at the time of release, that the couple couldn’t have had sex without Rene realising that Song didn’t have a vagina. Tricky, perhaps, in several respects, but hardly impossible when their relations are generally rushed, rather furtive and take place in semi-darkness.

In rushing to condemn the movie as a failure, most people failed to acknowledge what a beautifully put together piece of work it is. Cronenberg is working with the collaborators who have been with him as a group since Dead Ringers and as individuals much longer - DP Peter Suschitzky, editor Ronald Sanders, designer Carol Spier, composer Howard Shore - and their work is immaculate. Suschitzky and Spier do a particularly fine job in persuading us that the scenes in China are all locations and not a combination of location shooting and a soundstage in Canada. Howard Shore's rich and moving score is equally notable for its contribution to the operatic flavour of the film. It seems to me an atmospheric and vivid evocation of a time and place and enjoyable in this respect regardless of what one thinks of the rest of the film. Most of all, it's a film which gave Cronenberg new experience; using exotic locations; approaching a more mainstream audience; and taking the kind of critical flack which he had generally avoided since his early days. It's also the experience which seems to have spurred him back to his roots and on to his masterwork Crash. As such it's an important film in his career and one which deserves to be more widely known.

The Disc

It's taken a long time for Warners to get round to issuing M Butterfly on DVD and we should probably think ourselves lucky that the film wasn't consigned to the Archive Collection.

The film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. I was knocked out by the image which, for a standard definition release, is quite excellent. The colours are eye-poppingly vivid throughout and there's plenty of detail to savour. No print damage is evident. No doubt a high-definition transfer would be even better but this is about as good as could be expected from an SD title. The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is a little flat and lacking atmosphere at times, but it's an accurate representation of how the film sounded in theatres. The best aspect of the sound is the music score which comes across very crisply.

There are two extra features; the original theatrical trailer - demonstrating the difficulties of selling this odd film and, as a consequence, making it look like The Last Emperor - and a fifteen minute interview with David Cronenberg. The great man is at his most relaxed and lucid, taking us through the process of making the film and politely hitting back at some critics who seem to have completely missed the point of the story. This interview is in two parts - halfway through, Cronenberg tells us to switch off unless we're happy to hear some spoilers.

I'm delighted that M Butterfly has finally seen a DVD release and that the disc is so impressive; light on extra features perhaps but the interview with Cronenberg contains plenty of insightful information and puts some waffle-laden commentary tracks to shame. An essential purchase both for Cronenberg's admirers and those who enjoy something slightly off the beaten track.

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Last updated: 14/06/2018 15:20:49

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