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M. Butterfly


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๐ŸŽ™️ EPISODE 495: 06.23.22

In this major departure for Cronenberg and his second collaboration with leading man Jeremy Irons (see the underwhelming — imo — Dead Ringers from 1988), we find him abandoning all previous modes and security blankets for an out-of-left-field period piece romance (until the very end that is, when it seems he just couldn't help himself). Both its boilerplate storytelling and its homoerotic undertones make it a fascinating entry in the catalogue. It's far from perfect, but Irons seems slightly more engaged and John Lone in the role of Chinese "Dan" opera singer, Song "Butterfly" Liling (a man performing a female part) is really excellent.
Irons plays a French accountant working at their embassy in Beijing (magically speaking English, but who's counting). We feel he's bored with his work and can't get acclimated to the culture. Until one day he ventures out to see a performance of Madame Butterfly and becomes enamored with the lead performer. And, as such, we're quickly introduced to the major crux of the movie, the elephant in the room: is Irons's character unaware this is really a man, or just willfully ignorant (perhaps, in fact, that's part of the attraction?). It's a fascinating question and one handled deftly by Cronenberg, who never spells it out for you. Instead, these characters are presented as complex individuals with motivations both murky and concrete.

Irons begins to fall in love with Song and his rickshaw driver gives him a dragonfly as a pet...


(Yes, I should mention that this is the VHS-ass version I watched, which — and I know I'm a freak for it — I kind of loved. I believe it has gotten a Blu-ray release, though... just F.Y.I.)

The political nature of Irons's job is at once central to the story and merely in service to the telling of this blossoming, risquรฉ romance. As the accountant, he's constantly getting roused by his co-workers for being a stickler with the expense reports, and this is as close to body horror gross-out as the movie seems like it's gonna get...


And so it's a bit odd when he's given a huge promotion from accounting to some kind of intelligence job and instantly becomes those dudes' boss (sure, OK). This is all happening in the mid-60s backdrop before the Vietnam and subsequent cold wars. Irons sums up all of this (from France's perspective), more or less, in his first meeting with the new subordinates....


The political underpinnings definitely feel like an afterthought until we learn who Song really is: a spy for the Chinese government. And all the while, Irons is falling more and more madly in love...


They share a picnic and their conversation veers into gender territory and he clearly doesn't know Song is a man or [some interpretation of the willful ignorance explanation]...


This is a strange premise and it doesn't fully work; at times it's intriguing but it's too often stifling. But sexuality can be strange and off-putting and wrong at times (that schoolgirl bit was very cringe/sus). I give them credit for trying to tell this ambiguous tale even if it never quite comes together.

In some ways, I feel like the film doesn't lean into the political stuff hard enough (he is, after all, a dang spy). And some of the stuff about China and its relationship to the West is very interesting, prescient even in some backwards, unintentional way..


Things start to unravel a bit around the bridge between the second and third acts. Song tells him he's pregnant with Irons's baby?! And he buys it, hook, line and sinker. Needless to say, the audience has questions that they aren't gonna find any answers to. He drops her off at the train station so she can go away to have their son. And then Song (the spy) gets to work on acquiring a baby...


Then Song cuts right to the thematic heart of the story (originally a play by David Henry Hwang, who also wrote the screenplay)...


"Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act" is a great line and its gross sentiment rings true still in these times, as a quiet rallying cry for the ongoing culture wars. Like a lot of things in this film, it doesn't quite dive deep enough into the concept, though.

Another theme arises at this point, as well: the idea of art and writing as a crime (quite literally displayed here via an interpretation of Mao's 20th century policies). Cronenberg has toyed with the idea of art being the ultimate freedom in previous works, and exploring this angle from the other side felt like he was working in tandem with that sentiment. We see book burnings and ritual destruction of theater sets and costumes, before cutting to an expansive scene of a forced labor work site where former artists are being forced to dig, seemingly as punishment for their prior "art crimes." Strangely, Song is there too (one would think being a spy would give her immunity), but we get some nice insight into the matter...


Talk about culture wars! Anyway, just before this, "Butterfly" returns to Irons with his 'son'...


Irons's plan to marry her hits multiple snags, but mostly it's because he's been demoted and he's being sent back to France. The whole fake baby thing only comes up briefly again. Oh well!

So Irons is back in France and the years are going by. He's living a bachelor's life drinking heavily and working some courier job for the government. When guess who shows up at his doorstep one night? That's right, it's his "Butterfly." They apparently shack up together and Song, continuing to work as a spy, gathers more intel over some indeterminate amount of time. There is maybe three minutes of screen-time between their reunion and their being caught and put on trial and most of that is just a shot of Irons riding an old motorcycle. Anyway, the trial happens and we sorta get our Crying Game moment, only everyone is fully clothed and it's in a courtroom and Song is dressed as a man...


Irons is great in that scene (and the next), completely deadpan and cloaked in a weird sadness. They are then conveniently placed in the same police truck and they have their true Crying Game moment...


It's somewhat goofy and convoluted for sure, but it does end up being a story about trans love (albeit told through many filters). The film ends with Irons in prison putting on a performance of his own, donning a makeshift Chinese opera "Dan" costume and makeup and... SLITTING HIS THROAT ON THE MAKESHIFT STAGE...


The film is very loosely based on the real life exploits of a French diplomat Bernard Boursicot. It's one of those 'stranger than fiction' stories that frankly doesn't need much punching up. So Cronenberg's decision to end M. Butterfly in this manner IS A CHOICE. But Cronenberg gonna Cronenberg, and frankly, that's why we love him, don't we?

๐šƒ๐š‘๐š’๐šœ ๐š’๐šœ ๐š๐š‘๐šŽ 13th ๐š’๐š—๐šœ๐š๐šŠ๐š•๐š•๐š–๐šŽ๐š—๐š ๐š˜๐š ๐™ฒ๐š‘๐š›๐š˜๐š—๐šŽ๐š—๐š‹๐šž๐š›๐š – ๐š–๐šข ๐šŒ๐š‘๐š›๐š˜๐š—๐š˜๐š•๐š˜๐š๐š’๐šŒ๐šŠ๐š• ๐š ๐šŠ๐š๐šŒ๐š‘/๐š›๐šŽ๐š ๐šŠ๐š๐šŒ๐š‘ ๐š˜๐š ๐™ณ๐šŠ๐šŸ๐š’๐š ๐™ฒ๐š›๐š˜๐š—๐šŽ๐š—๐š‹๐šŽ๐š›๐š'๐šœ ๐š๐š’๐š•๐š–๐š˜๐š๐š›๐šŠ๐š™๐š‘๐šข. ๐™ฒ๐š•๐š’๐šŒ๐š” ๐š‘๐šŽ๐š›๐šŽ ๐š๐š˜๐š› ๐š๐šž๐š•๐š• ๐š›๐šŠ๐š—๐š”๐š’๐š—๐š ๐šŠ๐š—๐š ๐š–๐š˜๐š›๐šŽ...

CHRONOLOGICALLY
EPISODE 494 - (YOU ARE HERE) - EPISODE 496 ⫸

M. Butterfly is a 1993 American romantic drama film directed by David Cronenberg. The screenplay was written by David Henry Hwang based on his play of the same name. The film stars Jeremy Irons and John Lone, with Ian Richardson, Barbara Sukowa, and Annabel Leventon. It was released on October 1, 1993.

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