This butterfly just doesn’t fly. Icy, surprisingly conventional and never truly convincing, David Cronenberg’s screen version of David Henry Hwang’s hit Broadway play gets all dressed up in fancy threads but goes nowhere, due to lack of chemistry and heat on the part of the two leads.
Inspired by the true story of a French diplomat in China during the 1960s who conducted an 18-year affair with a native man he always thought was a woman and who was later convicted of espionage, M. Butterfly worked onstage because of the artifice and distance created by the theatrical setting.
But as much as one tries to buy the notion that Jeremy Irons’ Rene Gallimard is so smitten with John Lone’s Song Liling that he overlooks the hefty frame, masculine fingers and moustache stubble beneath the makeup, it just doesn’t wash.
Set in Beijing in 1964, tale begins with French Embassy accountant Gallimard being enchanted with Song Liling’s performance of excerpts from Pucini’s Madame Butterfly. Once Gallimard is promoted to vice consul, in which capacity he is privy to confidential intelligence, Song Liling is able to become an effective spy for the Communist regime.
Seventy minutes in, action jumps to Paris 1968. Gallimard is soon revealed to be a burnt-out case. To his astonishment, Song Liling suddenly appears at his door.
Irons’ sang-froid and dissolute air don’t work for the role, and all the effort in the world can’t prevent Lone from looking like a man in drag. Lensed in China, Hungary and France, this is Cronenberg’s first film shot outside Canada.