Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg which runs from November 1st to January 19th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
M. Butterfly represents a departure for David Cronenberg. Fast Company notwithstanding, it was with this film that he left the worlds of science fiction and horror in order to explore his key themes in a dramatic and realistic setting. M. Butterfly is a textured and multilayered film that deftly explores the realities of love, transformation, identity, and, yes, flesh.
The film is loosely based on a true story. It follows French diplomat Rene Gallimard during an assignment in 1960’s Beijing where he falls in love with an opera singer named Song Liling. The catch is that Song isn’t who she appears to be. Throughout the course of the film Rene is drawn to Song with a passion that is so powerful that he is literally blind to the obvious truth that Song is in fact, a man. Song uses the relationship with Rene as a means to gather intelligence for the Chinese government, which ultimately leads to Rene’s imprisonment. Throughout the course of the affair Rene manages to convince himself that Song is his pure and beautiful butterfly. The truth of course, as suggested by the title, is that Rene himself is the analogue for the butterfly character in Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly. A character so devoted to love that the truth escapes her.
M. Butterfly is a textured and multilayered film that deftly explores the realities of love, transformation, identity, and, yes, flesh.
The obvious criticism for Cronenberg’s adaptation is that the role of Song Liling is played by John Lone. Lone is a fantastic actor with great range, but his masculine frame, square jaw, and five o’clock shadow belie any possibility that he could be a woman. So the question arises, how did Rene Gallimard not see the obvious? While valid, this criticism detracts so much from the character of Rene. The whole point of the relationship between Rene and Song is to demonstrate how obsession can cloud the vision. From the moment of Rene’s introduction in the film we see a man who is dismissive and not terribly engaged with the world around him. He is meek in his behaviours at work, he is humble in the presence of his wife, and he overcompensates in the presence of strangers. When he sits down to view the opera selection from Madame Butterfly at the start of the film he admits to Frau Baden that he’s never seen the opera, but he doesn’t want anyone to know. He states in a pseudo sarcastic tone: “I want them to think that I’m profoundly cultured.” What this suggests is that Rene is already attempting to hide his true identity from the world around him. This subterfuge of identity within Rene is handled masterfully by Jeremy Irons. It’s a reflection of the overt identity contradictions that Irons portrayed in Dead Ringers, but it has been tempered and condensed into a performance that is constantly on the edge of breaking. Rene has the look of a panic stricken cat throughout a lot of the film, which he justifies to himself by thinking that he will be caught in an extra-marital affair, or that his relationship with Song would be frowned upon at work. The reality of course is that he is only hiding the realities of his relationship from himself.
As one of Cronenberg’s first non-genre films, M. Butterfly is an important work. It paved the way for his more contemporary films such as History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method.
In Song Liling, Croenenberg is able to give a more outward voice to the theme of identity. Song is clearly a man. This is obvious to the audience from the very moment we meet her, and it is precisely this overt characterization that allows us to access and discuss the notion of gender and identity. Song is confident that Rene will be interested almost immediately. She uses seduction and sexuality to her advantage and not once does her confidence waiver. The idea of flesh, one of Cronenberg’s trademark themes, comes across in the consideration of how Rene and Song could have continued a love affair for twenty years without Rene realizing that Song has a penis. In any conventional relationship, both parties would immediately recognize this, however, Rene is not engaged in a conventional relationship. From the outset he has embarked on an affair with obsession as opposed to love. The flesh is inconsequential to Rene, as he has chosen to focus on the idea of Song Liling over her physicality. This is not to say that the two don’t have a physical relationship. Song manages to satisfy Rene’s basic needs of the flesh discretely.
The culmination of the love affair is that Rene enthusiastically hands over state secrets in an effort to maintain his love for Song. He is sent to prison where he lives out his days in a state of depressed fanaticism. He is abandoned by his Butterfly and left hopelessly alone.
While interesting on a great many levels, the film suffers from slow pacing that results in a meandering plot that takes too long to find its focus. The heavy focus on Rene and Song also serves to render the other characters, the politics, and the setting almost two-dimensional. We get a superficial gloss of what life in Beijing in the 1960’s would have been like, but we don’t really get to join that world. These are minor points however, as the performances by Irons and Lone are completely mesmerizing. Irons gives a brave and nuanced portrayal of Rene that is so full of subtext and so open to interpretation. Lone’s portrayal of Song Liling is courageous and honest. He manages to get lost in the character without ever losing sight of the ultimate goal. His emotional reveal and ultimate destruction of Rene is one of the most powerful scenes in Cronenberg’s career.
As one of Cronenberg’s first non-genre films, M. Butterfly is an important work. It paved the way for his more contemporary films such as History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method. M. Butterfly may also be one of the least viewed of Cronenberg’s works, hopefully this will change. It’s an important piece and it speaks volumes to the development of his craft as a filmmaker.
[notification type=”star”]80/100 ~ GREAT. Lone’s portrayal of Song Liling is courageous and honest. He manages to get lost in the character without ever losing sight of the ultimate goal. His emotional reveal and ultimate destruction of Rene is one of the most powerful scenes in Cronenberg’s career.[/notification]