Based on the play by David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly is the story of Rene Gallimard’s relationship with Chinese opera performer Song Liling in the 1960s as they embark on an affair that would last for several years. Directed by David Cronenberg with Hwang writing the screenplay, the film is a loose re-telling of the true events that happened between Gallimard and Liling as they’re both played by Jeremy Irons and John Lone, respectively. Also starring Barbara Sukowa and Ian Richardson. M. Butterfly is an interesting yet underwhelming film from David Cronenberg.
It’s 1964 as Rene Gallimard is a French diplomat working for the French ambassador Toulin (Ian Richardson) in Beijing. In order to get to know the Chinese better, Gallimard attends a Chinese opera of M. Butterfly with friend Frau Baden (Annabel Leventon). He is entranced by the performance of its lead opera singer Song Liling as he wants to learn more about her and the world of Chinese opera. The two befriend each other as Gallimard falls for Liling while dealing with work as a diplomat where Gallimard is eventually promoted. He and Liling embark on an affair that would last for a few years as Liling is really a spy working for the government.
When Gallimard learns about the Red Guard’s ban on art with Liling being targeted, Gallimard is unable to help Liling who is sent to prison. Gallimard reluctantly returns to Paris where he wouldn’t see Liling until 1968. Liling arrives to Paris to reunite with Gallimard who had already lost his diplomatic job as well as his reputation. Taking a job as a courier, Gallimard is suddenly in trouble for treason where he learns about the awful truth about Liling.
The film is essentially about a diplomat’s relationship with a Chinese opera singer unaware that it’s performed by men. Yet, it’s also a film about deception as this man playing a woman plays the ultimate part as both lover to this diplomat while providing information to a government official (Shizuko Hoshi) as this relationship between diplomat and opera singer would last for some years. That’s pretty much the plot of the film where writer David Henry Hwang creates a film that seems to have more than what the script has to offer. While Hwang does create fascinating moments in the relationship between Gallimard and Liling. There’s a lot of questions into why Gallimard was so unaware that all these years being with Liling that he didn’t ever see him naked or knew that he was a man when there were some clues. That’s among some of the shortcomings Hwang’s script has.
David Cronenberg’s direction is pretty good in some spots for the compositions he creates as well as having it shot mostly in China. While there is an air of theatricality to the way he frames the scenes between Gallimard and Liling including the operas that is performed. The film is definitely Cronenberg at his most restrained for the fact that there’s not a lot of stylistic shots as he prefers to keep things straightforward. In that approach, Cronenberg creates a film that isn’t very involving due to the lack of a strong script. With London and parts of Paris playing some of the scenes in Paris for the third act, Cronenberg doesn’t do enough to present the inevitable to be so shocking. The result is that Cronenberg made a film that feels very flat in its presentation despite the fact that he’s trying to take risks with a story like this.
Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky does an excellent job with the colorful photography from the lush look of some of the interiors in Paris and in Liling’s home as well as gorgeous exteriors for some of the Chinese location including the Great Wall. Editor Ronald Sanders does a very good job with the editing where he manages to maintain a pace that is leisured while utilizing a more straightforward approach to the editing. Production designer Carol Spier, with art directors Alicia Keywan and James McAteer and set decorator Elinor Rose Galbraith, does a fantastic job with the set pieces created in the look of Liling’s home as well as some of the theatrical sets for the Chinese opera scenes.
Costume designer Denise Cronenberg does a wonderful job with the costumes created from the theatrical clothing that Liling wears on stage as well as the silk yet stylish dresses she wears outside of the stage. Sound mixer Bryan Day does a nice job with the sound work to capture the atmosphere of some of the locations including the intimate moments between Gallimard and Liling. Music composer Howard Shore does a terrific job with the music to play up the romance and drama that occurs with swelling orchestral arrangements even though it tends to overwhelm the scenes in some spots.
The casting by Deirdre Bowen does a superb job with the cast that is assembled as it features small roles from Barbara Sukowa as Gallimard’s wife Jeanne, Annabel Leventon as his opera-loving friend Frau Baden, Shizuko Hoshi as Liling’s government friend Chin, and Ian Richardson as Gallimard’s boss Ambassador Toulon. John Lone is brilliant in a very daring role as Song Liling, an opera singer who poses as a woman while starting to be intrigued by this man who has fallen for him. Jeremy Irons is stellar as Renee Gallimard as a man who falls for this mysterious being as he is unaware of being deceived. Despite the weakness of the script that often makes Irons look foolish, it is still a fantastic performance as he gives it his all including the film’s ultimate finale.
M. Butterfly is a fascinating but un-involving film from David Cronenberg despite the performances of Jeremy Irons and John Lone. While Cronenberg deserves some credit for trying to stray away from his usual world of suspense and sci-fi thrillers by tackling a straight drama. It’s hindered by a very lackluster script by its actual creator David Henry Hwang. While the film does have some moments, M. Butterfly is definitely not one of David Cronenberg’s essential films.
David Cronenberg Films: Stereo - Crimes of the Future - Shivers - Rabid - Fast Company - The Brood - Scanners - Videodrome - The Dead Zone - The Fly (1986 film) - Dead Ringers - Naked Lunch - Crash - eXistenZ - Spider - A History of Violence - Eastern Promises - A Dangerous Method - Cosmopolis - Maps to the Stars - Crimes of the Future (2022 film)
The Auteurs #26: David Cronenberg Pt. 1 - Pt. 2
The Auteurs #26: David Cronenberg Pt. 1 - Pt. 2
© thevoid99 2012
So you are also a Cronenberg fan,uh? This film is not typical Cronenberg but I still liked it.As you said,they shoot beautifully in Chinese locations.Jeremy Irons' performance is superb,especially the last scene.Many criticize the plot being weak,how can Irons not recognize Lone since they made body contact many times,I have to agree with that.
BTW,I'm adding your blog link to my blogroll.
Yep, I'm a Cronenberg fan. I wanted to try and enjoy the film but I had issues with the script. I still liked the performances. I hope to do an Auteurs piece on Cronenberg in 2013. I just need to see all of his features that I haven't listed in my reviews of his work and I'll do it.
Thank you for adding my blog to your blogroll.
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