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):

Honestly, does this look a like a fucking woman to anyone?

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.

Until then,


The order so far:

  1. Dead Ringers (4 Changs)
  2. The Fly (4 Changs)
  3. Videodrome (4 Changs)
  4. Scanners (3.5 Changs)
  5. The Brood (3 Changs)
  6. The Dead Zone (3 Changs)
  7. Shivers (2 Changs)
  8. M. Butterfly (1.5 Changs)
  9. Naked Lunch (1.5 Changs)
  10. Rabid (1 Changs)
  11. Fast Company (Orangutan of Doom)

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

34 responses to “Should have gone to Specsavers: M. Butterfly”

  1. Jarv says :

    I would like it noted that I showed remarkable restraint here not cracking a shit load of jokes about Droid and Transvestites.

  2. Franklin Thomas Marmoset says :

    I reckon the least convincing woman in film history is Wesley Snipes in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.

    Also, Julia Roberts.

    In conclusion, ‘meh’.*

    * Sorry, I just wanted to try that word out, see how it felt, what with it being so popular among internet types. It felt like when you accidentally get poop-finger when the toilet paper breaks. Didn’t like it, feel dirty, won’t be using it again.

    In proper conclusion, this is one of the few Cronenberg’s I haven’t seen. It always looked kind of dull to me. I’m tempted, though, just to see how off-putting Lone really is as a woman.

    • Jarv says :

      Don’t bother, Frank.

      It’s pretty dull stuff- Lone is mildly amusing as a woman, and he does say things like “how come you like me and my boyish chest”.

      • Franklin Thomas Marmoset says :

        M.Butterfly is a film I’ve always been sort of curious about, mostly because I liked Dead Ringers so much and it would be cool to see Cronenberg and Irons together again.

        Is it better or worse than Spider?

        I tried to watch that film twice and fell asleep both times.

  3. Jarv says :


    Spider is terminally dull. Second worst Cronenberg film after the diabolical fast company

  4. xiphos0311 says :

    Honestly, does this look a like a fucking woman to anyone?

    on certain streets in Honolulu Hawaii the answer would be yes.

    • Jarv says :

      Disturbing. Remind me to miss Hawaii

      • xiphos0311 says :

        Naw Jarv just avoid Honolulu it’s another crappy city that can be easily skipped. The outer islands and other parts of Oahu are where you need to go. also don’t go during summer when the trade winds are active there isn’t any surfing and if you can’t surf in Hawaii why go?

      • Jarv says :

        I’ve never surfed in my life- always meant to just never got round to it.

      • xiphos0311 says :

        Jarv Surfing, looking at bikini clad women and maybe fresh pineapple is about the only reason to go to Hawaii.

  5. LB says :

    Ah yes-Chinese Opera. Here’s my impression:

    *Nasally Screams*

    *Nasally Screams*

    *Gibbers at near scream*

    *Poses dramatically in nice clothes*

    Cue The orchestra:


    Cue cowbell.


  6. Barfy says :

    Not having seen the play the movie was based on, I can only imagine the premise worked better on stage… a distance. But here, even balcony seating couldn’t hide the timbre of John Lone’s voice. He was so very miscast.

    Good write up Jarv. You summed it up perfectly: a moron and a man in a dress.

    Catchy tunes though.

    • Jarv says :

      I haven’t seen the play either. I still believe, though, that it requires an androgynous male in the lead- otherwise it’s a farce.

      Having said that, I did see Mark Rylance play Cleopatra at the Globe and he wasn’t bad. Didn’t look remotely like a woman, but never mind.

  7. Tom_Bando says :

    I’m waiting for the Benny Hill rendition of this, myself. Good review Jarv. This sounds-AWFUL.

  8. Continentalop says :

    Greetings ladies & gents, just stopping in for a quick “hi.”

    Jarv, I agree with your review of the film save for one point: I don’t think Lone was miscast. The actual person he was based on looked very much like a man. French authorities took one look at him and said “that’s a dude.”

    I put the blame on Cronenberg for failing to convey the self-denial and delusion that Bernard Boursicot (the actual man the film is based on) went through.

    • Tom_Bando says :

      Hey it’s Conti Pops! We’ve reserved a spot for you in the big Noire/not Noire debate back a couple days—-

    • Jarv says :

      See, my usual three minutes of research (wikipedia) told me that Shi was a young, elfin guy that had a vaguely feminine cast to him. However, my 3 minutes of research this morning to check gave me this:

      The real song

      Which suggests that Lone is actually good casting. However, I stridently disagree. Film is a visual medium and Rene is much less of an ingenue than Bernard, so in this instance for it to be successful, I think the role required a much more androgynous presence.

      Bernard is still going- silly bastard. He’s now in a nursing home.

  9. ThereWolf says :

    Cheers, Jarv.

    Hmmm… haven’t seen M. Butterfly and for some reason have never associated the film with Cronenberg. No idea how I missed that – head meet arse, ey who turned the lights off?

    I’ll give this one a miss I think.

  10. redfishybluefishy says :

    Curious, I always attributed the obliviousness of Rene to the era; you know, the “if it wears makeup it MUST be a girl” syndrome. But wow, Bernard Boursicot was 20 years old while Shi was 26, so his youth alone makes the naivety somewhat more believable than a middle aged man. (The age of the leads was changed by the playwright, not by Cronenberg.)

    I find the story itself kind of fascinating, but while I wanted to like the movie I did ultimately find it kind of boring and unlikely. And I agree that some of the scenes do border on farce.

    Spot on with your critique of Chinese Opera. Bagpipes, however, I kind of enjoy… especially those kilts! Donald, where’s your trousers?

    • Jarv says :

      Bernard was sexually ambivalent, incredibly naive, mildly homophobic and suffered from Catholic guilt about his true nature.

      The story after they were released from Prison is absolutely fascinating. Truly weird.

  11. kloipy says :

    this is pretty great. saw this one a long time ago and thought you guys would dig it

  12. MORBIUS says :

    Didn’t read the review because of the spoiler…

    I’m thinking something along the lines of…

    The Crying Game!

  13. koutchboom says :

    GOOD finally Crash is coming up. Let me know when you watch it.

  14. Christina says :

    I don’t think the purpose of john lone was to convince the audience that he is a woman. Everyone that has seen the play and the back story already knows that Song is a man. I think the purpose was for you as an audience member watch events unfold for René, as if you’re about to see a train wreck not a twist.

    • Jarv says :

      That’s a fair point, but I wasn’t familiar with the story. The problem with Lone though, is that it makes René appear completely dimwitted- to a ridiculous level. To be fair, given his ridiculous assertions on world affairs, he does come across as a moron on more than one occasion, but I think they needed someone slightly more androgynous than Lone, who looks like a boxer.

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