Although this one has come a long way for this outspoken David Cronenberg fan, it’s still the first DC film that I’ve covered in the Cronenberg Chronicle that gives me areas of great pause. I never considered it a bad film, but it’s taken me some time to warm to the artistic choices that David made when adapting this renowned award-winning play from David Henry Hwang(who also penned the screenplay for this film version). Full confession—it took me a long period to warm to the original theatre version too. I simply didn’t care for it when I first witnessed it on Broadway in 1988, starring original cast members John Lithgow and B.D. Wong. There were a number of things I focused on as a green 22 year-old actor watching that play. Those things didn’t seem so important as time marched on and I watched “M. Butterfly” amass honor after honor in the late 80’s(including the Tony award for Best Play, a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize and an astonishing 777 performance run). I’ve also read this stirring theatre piece multiple times since first experiencing it live, and I later attended another very good professional performance of it at a New Jersey stage company in 1994. Simply put, I called it wrong way back when. “M. Butterfly” is a masterful play, and it irks me to remember how much I trashed it originally. And now the right amount of space has allowed me to appreciate Cronenberg’s film version too. It does still feel too small, whereas even a spacially-challenged stage work felt epic. In fact, it still comes off as so insular that it is remarkable that DC felt the need to film in multiple countries like China, Hungary and France. It plays like something that could’ve been entirely studio shot. Yes, there’s a scene at the Great Wall, but the exterior shots are limited. However, two key scenes towards the end of the film work a bit better for me with the passage of time and attainment of more knowledge. Distance from 1992’s “The Crying Game” has been of great assistance, as well.
It seems kind of silly for me to have to give a spoiler alert for a quarter century old play and a 19-year old movie, but I’m issuing one anyway. Stop reading now if you still wish to experience the “surprise”. The character of Song Liling is a man, and the character of Rene Gallimard never realizes it(or maybe just never admits it to himself). Incredible when you consider that the characters were lovers for over twenty years. Downright confounding upon learning that the characters are based on an entirely non-fiction incident! Bernard Boursicot, the real Rene Gallimard is now 68 years old and still the subject of much fascination regarding the case. Shi Pei Pu, the inspiration for Song Liling, passed away at the age of 70 in 2009. I should get away from the true story now and the original play, and focus on Cronenberg’s film. But first let me state that while in the play, Song Liling’s maleness is a closely guarded secret(B. D. Wong—note the absence of gender identification in the name—won a Tony Award in 1988 for his mesmerizing performance), the film appears to go the route of thinly veiling this eventual revelation. In other words, John Lone’s masculinity is almost ridiculously apparent. But did Cronenberg fail to recognize this or was it an entirely intentional device on his part? Still hard to say for certain, but undoubtedly he was aware of the baggage he was saddled with after the release of the gender-bending “The Crying Game” while his “M. Butterfly” adaptation was still in production. Either way, the story centers on a French diplomat who falls head-over-heels for a beautiful Chinese opera singer while stationed in China in the 1960’s. Rene Gallimard(a terrific Jeremy Irons, working with Cronenberg for the second time)is married and has a high-level job with the French embassy. But he throws caution to the wind and ends up making some crucial national security mistakes in his pursuit of Madame Song(Mr. Lone in an under-appreciated, cautiously nuanced performance). With the Vietnam War and Mao’s Cultural Revolution as a backdrop, Gallimard becomes intricately entwined in the volatile political atmosphere of the day, while unguardedly discussing sensitive material(mostly offscreen)with Madame Song. Gallimard, at first, displays an arrogance spurred on by his pride in the consummation of his love affair with Liling. And then later, a pronounced vulnerability as his obsession with Liling grows, and “she” eventually leaves him for a period only to return after bearing his now months-old son(!). Eventually, both Gallimard and Liling are arrested and tried for treason—and only then is the true nature of their relationship exposed. While Gallimard was hotly involved with Madame Song, “she” was supplying information to the enemy as a Chinese spy. Gallimard is now thrown up before the courts and made a laughingstock as he tries to explain how he could spend years in a sexual relationship with a man while believing it was actually a woman. The play actually has the character of Gallimard spout something along the lines of “she was quite modest and it was very dark”. No such thing is uttered here, but there is strong suggestion that Gallimard was merely “willfully ignorant”(Bernard Boursicot, the actual diplomat the story is loosley based on, eventually came out as a homosexual and was openly living with a male partner).
This is a tricky one to rate, because I have become so enamored with the play that I have great difficulty in divorcing myself from the original artistic creation. There is a powerful scene of reveal in the stage show that is performed in a jailhouse setting that is transferred to a paddy wagon for the film(apparently it was right in the courtroom in real life!). The jailhouse version in the theatre was always a bit shaky for me, but the police wagon depiction makes the play’s choice seem rock solid! I’ve softened on it a bit over the years(I remember feeling, “wouldn’t these guys just physically attack one another”?), especially after a friend assured me that the transporting of such criminals together is more common place overseas than I would realize(still not completely sold, btw). Another is a prison performance by Gallimard that never quite rang true for me. Again, Cronenberg is somewhat trapped here in adapting this finale for the screen and not making it seem entirely stagebound. With the help of cinematographer extraordinaire Peter Suschitsky, David succeeds in creating a haunting and creepy establishing shot of said prison and the claustrophobic confines of Gallimard’s sad captivity. Irons plays the scene wonderfully—it’s more the reaction of the audience of convicts that raises my ire. And, shockingly, just when you get used to the idea that there will be nary a body-horror spotting to be found in this work—David supplies. In buckets. It’s a horrific and poignant conclusion. Howard Shore’s music is remarkably fitting throughout. It’s an enticing score. The editing of Ronald Sanders, on the other hand, seems to be too bare bones. Known for his brevity(Cronenberg has never directed a film that runs over two hours), here was an oppurtunity for David to expand his horizons a bit with this large-scale story(the recent “A Dangerous Method” is a more recent example). Maybe he pulls it too inward this time. There has been the rumour of a 20 minutes longer cut being out there for years, along with Cronenberg’s claim that the studio forced his hand in delivering a 100 minute film. What I’d give to actually see that pop up somewhere down the line. In closing, I acknowledge that “M. Butterfly” is not the strongest representation of DC’s body of work. But it is a difficult and ultimately rewarding piece that may be overdue for a critical reevaluation. And, although I could never recommend it over a well-cast stage version, in lieu of the appearance of that…this 1993 film adaptation is unquestionably the next best thing. Grade: B