David Cronenberg turns to interpretation once more with M. Butterfly, an adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s play of the same name. The 1993 picture appears at first blush to stand out among the director’s work, but Cronenberg builds on familiar themes and evokes an eternal, excruciating sadness.
In many ways, M. Butterfly is an accomplice of Naked Lunch. Both movies are revelatory works. Both movies feature adrift men in hallucinogenic milieus. Both movies feature characters adept at the art of self-delusion, often to the detriment of those around them. And both movies are fundamentally complicated.
Jeremy Irons is René Gallimard, a French diplomat at work in 1960s Beijing. He’s married to Jeanne (Barbara Sukowa) and relatively proficient when it comes to condescending to his Chinese hosts. His poise is challenged when he meets Chinese opera performer Song Liling (John Lone). Gallimard becomes infatuated with Liling.
Liling’s identity is betrayed by the casting and by rather transparent aspects throughout the picture. Nevertheless, Gallimard’s self-delusion persists even as Liling is revealed as working for the government and holding on to his own defensive fallacies. And their affair likewise persists.
Understanding M. Butterfly is, firstly, a matter of letting go. There is no “surprise” in Cronenberg’s interpretation. The audience is informed and aware of Song Liling’s identity and any subsequent betrayals are up to the characters.
Just as Chinese opera, or Xiqu, features male performers in all roles, Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly preserves the theatrical by employing Howard Shore’s sweeping score and sending Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography afloat in a lovely but preconceived version of “the Orient.” This mythology is integral to selling the art.
Irons’ Gallimard is selling himself the art and Lone’s Liling is intent on telling him this. “It is the music, not the story,” he says. Gallimard’s Western conceit sequesters him from reality and he simply hears the music. He hears the song of Song’s lore, a mythos he’s told himself through years of conditioning and insinuations.
Gallimard desires the submissive woman of the Orient. This is why he refers to Song as the inert schoolgirl he intends on tutoring in the ways of love. He is in command. He is the master and she indulges, nourishing his fantasies while preserving the illusion of Chinese reticence.
Cronenberg and Suschitzky delicately underline Gallimard’s perception. The placement of shadows is important; Gallimard’s eyes are alight when he sees Song for the first time. Later, they are betrayed to shadow when he embarks on a one night stand with a German woman (Annabel Leventon). Her flush, full nudity causes him to reveal that she looks exactly as he expected she would.
Little moments like this reveal the depths of Gallimard’s curious mistake. He is fooling himself into a romantic vision of not just an individual but an archetype. He knows it. The mysteries of this “foreign” culture in which he exists are as much a part of his own wish fulfillment as they are apart from reality.
For those who understand Cronenberg as a simple distillation of parts, M. Butterfly may seem out of place. But that’s just what the director is selling. One’s expectations are tilted toward misconception, to the point that what Gallimard expects trumps what Gallimard actually has in his hands. And when the naked truth is revealed, what else is left?