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. Without top reviews, this class release, which world preemed at the Toronto Fest on Sept. 9, won’t venture too far beyond specialized situations.
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 the artifice and distance created by the theatrical setting allowed the audience to accept the rather far-fetched premise.
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. Disbelief is never suspended, resulting in the unfortunate but continuous sense of two fine actors never really becoming comfortable inside the skin of their characters.
However unfair, comparisons to “The Crying Game” are inescapable, and it is clear that Neil Jordan’s smash pulled off a similar gambit both first and better. “The Crying Game” proved that you could present a man who passed as a woman onscreen, and the one key comparable scene — in which the character reveals the truth about his body — is far more powerful in the earlier film.
Set in Beijing in 1964, tale begins with French Embassy accountant Gallimard being enchanted with Song Liling’s performance of excerpts from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Enticed by a brief conversation in which Song Liling cleverly challenges his notions of Western males and Asian females, the married Gallimard conspicuously attends the Chinese Opera to see her again and advances things toward an affair.
With Song Liling pleading traditional modesty and shyness, Gallimard accepts his mistress’s wish never to completely disrobe. Cronenberg shows just enough sex between them to suggest how such a charade was pulled off, although the crucial passion between the two is notably missing.
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, passing along advance word on U.S. plans in Vietnam, among other information.
The pair refer to their racially and culturally perscribed sex roles, with Song Liling a “slave” and Gallimard a “white devil,” but when the Frenchman insists upon seeing his mate naked, Song Liling announces that she’s pregnant and disappears to the country to have their “son.”
Seventy minutes in, action jumps to Paris 1968. Gallimard attends a performance of “Butterfly” at the Paris Opera, but is soon revealed to be a burnt-out case, living alone in a small apartment decorated in quasi-Oriental style and pining over his lost love.
“When I left China, everything fell apart,” he drunkenly confesses before beholding the spectacle of French students parading through the streets in the name of Mao.
To his astonishment, Song Liling suddenly appears at his door. But Gallimard, now a mere diplomatic courier, is soon arrested and becomes the center of a sensational trial in which the depths of his deception are revealed. Ending works an ironic and highly theatrical twist on the “Madama Butterfly” theme.
Irons gave possibly his greatest screen performances in his previous outing with Cronenberg, “Dead Ringers.” Here, however, his sang-froid and dissolute air don’t work for the role. Irons can’t be as gullible as Gallimard needs to be. British to the core, he doesn’t easily reveal headlong passion or the sense of throwing caution to the wind.
Lone is a similarly superb actor, but all the effort in the world can’t prevent him from looking like a man in drag here. This can be rationalized ad infinitum, but the problem remains, and it isn’t helped by a voice that, in an attempt to hit a neutral zone between male and female, sometimes sounds strangely disembodied, almost electronic.
Other thesps have limited demands placed upon them, although Ian Richardson shines in his scenes as the impeccable French ambassador.
Lensed in China, Hungary and France, this is Cronenberg’s first film shot outside Canada. Unfortunately, nothing manages to disguise the feel of artifice that surrounds the entire production.