M. Butterfly (1993)

Genres - Action, Drama, Spy Film  |   Sub-Genres - Erotic Drama  |   Release Date - Oct 1, 1993 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 100 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Brian J. Dillard

The stage version of M. Butterfly was based on a titillating true story, but the play used its premise to pose compelling questions about notions of male and female, West and East, as embodied by diplomat Rene Gallimard and opera singer Song Liling. In adapting his own play for the screen and teaming up with auteur David Cronenberg (as demonstrated by Naked Lunch, not the most respectful director when it comes to the integrity of his source material), David Henry Hwang fails to compensate for the differences between the mediums. It's not that he and Cronenberg fail to translate the stylized drama into a realistic film, but that, with the exception of the pat and stalely ironic finale, they succeed too well. With its sumptuous Chinese cityscapes and reverent interiors, M. Butterfly threatens to become nothing more than a Merchant-Ivory production of The Crying Game -- a picturesque period piece with a kinky twist. The stage version maintained dramatic tension by leaving it ambiguous as to whether Gallimard knew his lover's gender all along; naturalism, though, demands that the film hedge its bet, so the script goes to great lengths to explain the methodology behind Liling's deception. Cronenberg and Hwang's emphasis on the relationship between the central characters, rather than on the political and cultural dialogue between them, dulls the material's rhetorical edges. It doesn't help that Jeremy Irons plays Gallimard with the same hollow-eyed angst he brought to films such as Damage and Lolita rather than the wittier, more wicked edge he showed in Reversal of Fortune and Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. John Lone is compelling as Liling, but the script makes only a few half-hearted attempts to explain his character's motivations. With the same tunnel vision as Gallimard himself, then, M. Butterfly tells us only half of an admittedly interesting story.