Should have gone to Specsavers: M. Butterfly
Christ, I don’t know where to begin with this one. I’ve tried to write it a few times without spoiling, but have been forced to conclude that the only sensible way to review this film is to review the spoiler in the film. I’ve come to this conclusion for two reasons: it’s fucking obvious, and furthermore it’s all over the internets. Nevertheless, on with the review…
Cronenberg loves making films about identity. Dead Ringers, A History of Violence and others all involve central characters that aren’t at home in their own skin. They all have identity issues of some description, but M. Butterfly has it in spades.
Jeremy Irons plays one of the most incredibly stupid people on the planet- based on a real idiot, apparently- called René Gallimard. René is a low-level diplomat in Peking in 1964 who gets drawn into an ill-advised affair with spy/ opera singer Song played by John (yes, you did read that correctly) Lone. René, despite being married and sexually active, for some inexplicable reason believes Song to be a woman. I’ll come to why this is completely preposterous in a second, but this is the crux of the film: moron shags tranny. Song tells René that she’s pregnant so disappears for a few months, before returning with a half chinese child that René absolutely believes is his. Eventually he’s sent back to Paris, before Song reappears and it all goes completely wrong (I did originally write “awry” here, but seeing as the clueless tool has been shagging a guy for years that he thinks is a woman I would argue that things are already fairly awry).
This is, actually, based on a noted play as well as real life, and I can see why the subject matter attracted Cronenberg, but he is absolutely the wrong man for the job. His films tend towards the sterile, and in a film about sexually ambiguous morons then the icy, almost surgical, atmosphere he conjures up fails to elicit sympathy and as such fails as a tragedy.
Having said that, M. Butterfly is quite well written. It tends towards the didactic and preachy on occasion, particularly regarding imperialism and white male attitudes to Oriental women, but on the whole the dialogue, particularly between Song and his/ her handler seem credible enough, and are well drawn enough to allow insight into Song’s mind- who is clearly enjoying the hold he/she has over the hapless tit René.
Jeremy Irons is on good form again playing René with a haughty arrogance that suits the character well- René has to be an arrogant tool, because anyone working in China at that time with even the slightest cultural knowledge (not to mention functioning eyesight) should know that men play the female parts in Chinese Opera. Chinese Opera, incidentally, is a dreadful cacophony most akin to a sadist boiling a live cat.
Nevertheless, I digress.
The rest of the supporting cast are all good, in particular Ian Richardson is splendid as René’s bureau chief, but he has a long and distinguished CV playing precisely these sort of roles. John Lone, however, has the most demanding role in the film as Song, and if this film were a radio play then he would probably be quite good. As it is, film is a visual medium and this is where the problems start. Before I go on with this- here’s a screenshot of John Lone (who Mrs. Jarv commented was “built like a boxer” in disgust):
Seriously, how was Lone (good actor that he undoubtedly is) cast in this? He’s the least convincing woman on-screen outside of a Carry-On movie. This mistaken gender schtick can be done to good effect but for it to be successful then the man cast in the drag role has to at the very least look androgynous. Lone most certainly does not meet this criteria. He is not the guy in The Crying Game (a film that deals with similar issues but is far more successful). This completely disastrous piece of casting utterly scuppers the film, as it is absolutely inconceivable that René could possibly mistake Song for a woman- and no amount of “modesty” can make up for this.
This is going to be a fairly short review, because once I’ve pointed out the big failure of the film (casting an obvious guy in a role screaming for ambiguity) then the conceit simply collapses around the cast. There is no way that Irons, as good an actor as he is, can convincingly portray René as someone that doesn’t know that his “Butterfly” is a guy, because every time they’re on screen together it’s fucking patently obvious that what we have here is a moron and a man in a dress. The script can make as many clever references to the Opera Madame Butterfly (which forms the majority of the score) or to classic works such as Epicoene, but it’s a completely pointless exercise because Lone is so obviously a fucking guy.
To conclude, this isn’t a bad film as such, but it is an icy cold one and the cretinous piece of casting does such damage that I can’t really recommend it. As a curio, it is probably worth a look, and if you’re a completist then it isn’t a boring (actually, it’s unintentionally funny on occasion) 100 minutes. However, as I say, M. Butterfly doesn’t really work and can very easily be missed. If you do feel an overwhelming need to see a film about a man falling in love with another man in a dress, then go and find The Crying Game. I give this one and a half Changs- competent but a bit of a failure.
At least it’s more coherent than Naked Lunch.
Next up is the utterly foul Crash- I’m going to settle this “soft core” nonsense once and for all- even if I have to take a wire brush to my eyes afterwards.
The order so far: