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Soundtrack Effects in To Live and Die in L.A.

I mentioned in my previous write up of To Live and Die in L.A. that this movie keeps me thinking. While listening to the soundtrack today (it can make for great study music), I was struck with the eerie, descending, synthetic voices on tracks such as “Every Big City” and what they signify. They not only reflect the moral fall of Chance and his partner, but their ethereal sound also alludes to L.A., the city of angels, and its corruption as well.

To Live and Die in L.A.

The title screen from To Live and Die in L.A.

The blood splatter that looks like a palm tree in the film’s title always reminded me of the famous blood stain from Watchmen.

When I first drafted this blog post, I was sitting in the Toronto Pearson airport as I waited for my breakfast before I fly out to Seattle. Clearly that was the time to reflect upon my recent re-watch of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). It was around seven years since I had seen it, and the film is never as great as I remember. Still, it’s a well made movie, certainly, though some of the film’s seediness and nihilism can be repellant.

I am particularly intrigued, however, by the two informant characters, and how they contrast each other. Our antihero Richard Chance, the Secret Service agent who decides to break the law in order to protect it, exploits Ruth Lanier, a woman who specializes in information to scrape by. The counterfeiter, Rick Master (the most 80s name to ever 80s), also have an informant, Bianca Torres, who is, essentially, his partner, in more ways than one. Whereas Chance exploits Ruth with little regard to her well-being, Masters treats his partner with respect. Both of these informants work at dance clubs, Bianca at an avant-garde dance club, Ruth at a strip club.

The ending circumstances reflect these different dynamics as well.  Bianca is self-assured woman. When Dean Stockwell’s character asks why she stayed, what she got out of it. She turns the question on him, and he replies that they were “partners”. She leaves in silence, with her female partner/lover waiting in Master’s sweet car. They drive away scot-free. By contrast, Ruth tries to escape the cycle of her dependency, but the film ends with Chance’s partner, John Vukovich, taking Chance’s place as a corrupt cop mining information from the precarious. The moral is that men are terrible, and women suffer from the classic “victim of circumstances”, but that ending is unsatisfying as it is the cheap form of characterizations film. Instead of giving women agency and the potential to change their circumstances, we are asked to pity the women as they are brutalized by the system. Through the parallelism, we see that the counterfeiter and his crew had a better relationship with Bianca that the cops out for blood have with Ruth, and indeed Bianca is a completely self-assured, smart woman who coolly and confidently walks away. But even her character is somewhat hampered by the final acts of Rick Masters.

Masters, of course, isn’t perfect, and the film trips itself up a bit around his relationships. Before the climax, Rick presents Bianca her friend/partner/lover from the dance club to here as a present. This act indicates that he cares for her, but also frames her queerness through his control. This encases her queer agency within his framework, somewhat tainting the women’s victorious drive away at the end of the film. Rick, however, is not completely presented as a straight man either, as the film alludes to a gay potency throughout the film. We first meet Bianca as Rick kisses her while she is dressed completely androgynously, making the audience question his sexuality quite early in the film.  Rick also makes coded references to his potentially build sexuality, as he asks the then undercover cops “Is this package for me?” while in a gym locker room. while the film is ambiguous to what extent its characters are queer, its possible to see Masters final act as another example of his control (after all, he also videotapes his sexual encounters with Bianca), or an act of acknowledgment from one queer individual to another.

Richard Chance in To Live and Die in L.A.

A great shot of Richard Chance that helps illustrate both his bad boy nature (notice the leather jacket) and the great cinematography of the film.

The main character Chance helps illustrate the obvious themes, and whose symbolism is worth briefly exploring. Chance’s name reflects his risk taking life style, something established early in the film and helps illustrate why he’d be willing to break the law to supposedly save it. it is also meant to contrast to the consummate criminal Rick Masters. While Chance is quite literally a loose cop, whose leash is only the law, Masters is a controlled criminal whose diligence is only ruined by the messy law breaking by Chance and his coerced partner. But at what cost is this a victory? This is the main theme of the film, and it is fleshed out quite well. The film’s famous, wonderful car chase scene is also perfectly emblematic of the film’s themes, as Chance chooses to ignore the “WRONG WAY. DO NOT ENTER” sign partway through the chase, and drive on the wrong side of the road on a busy highway. It’s a simple metaphor, but an effective one, and one example of the blindingly obvious symbolism the film holds, that is so obvious is circles back around to being subtle in some strange way. (Case in point: it took me days to realize the significance of Chance’s name.)

While Chance is the lynchpin of the film’s themes on needing the law to prevent cops from being as corrupt as the criminals, he is also where some of the problems of the film erupt. In the end of the film, as Ruth finds herself stuck trapped in a cycle of exploitation, the ending of the film overemphasizes the spectre of Chance, and how his normally by-the-book partner has been corrupted and took his place within the system. The film’s ending with his partner saying “you work for me now” is powerful enough, but is marred by the film’s insistence on inserting a shot of Chance’s face in the scene *and* a shot of him pulling up in his truck, *and* ending the film at the last instance after the credits to show Chance’s face again. The first instance cuts from what was a beautiful shot of Ruth’s face against the L.A. backdrop, a shot powerful enough to end the film. Instead, the ending scene is compromised by the unnecessary edits, something the film suffers from near the beginning as well. The film’s editing and pacing feels choppy at the beginning, but really picks up once Chance commits to breaking the law in order to “preserve it”. The great soundtrack certainly helps with the pace, as Wang Chung’s propulsive beats add tension and a groove to many of the film’s scenes, often used for establishing shots.

The final shot of Ruth in To Live and Die in L.A.

A gorgeous shot, with the potential of escape highlighted by the bridge in the distance, marred by eager editing trying to beat the audience over the head with the film’s moral.

This is a well made movie that keep me thinking, one that certainly revels in crime film clichés and well as possibly establishing new ones. (A cop killed two days before retirement, and he literally says “I’m getting too old for this shit” in the first scene.) It is perhaps the moral cliché that is the most dated, not for its message, but for the consequences for Ruth’s character, and the film, ethically, suffers as a result. I have a fondness for the soundtrack, something I devoured on high school bus rides for a brief yet intense time. But I cannot quite say the same for the movie, despite its strong qualities (baby-faced Willem Dafoe as Rick Masters is quite a delight). I haven’t seen Friedkin’s other films, many of which are supposedly masterpieces. Knowing from this film that Friedkin, at the very least, is a master of form, makes me look forward to them.

The ending credits over the bridge in To Live and Die in L.A.

I just noticed that we, the audience, seem to escape over the bridge in the credits. This film keeps me thinking.

Some Credit Advice

Relax.

This is my number one financial tip for young students, or just young people in general, who want to jumpstart their credit report and build their credit history. Good credit takes time, and you can’t expedite as fast as you think.

For me, I was overzealous, applying for credit cards despite my low income, not to pay off any immediate debts (in fact, I had no plan to use them whatsoever), but to expand my credit portfolio. It backfired. Not only did I not get more lines or credit, my credit scores took a small hit for each hard inquiry on  my credit report. The resulting damage wasn’t that bad, but my impatience for these hard credit inquiries gnaws at me now and then as I wait for them to discharge from my credit report.

Take your time applying for things that will affect your credit score, such as credit cards. Because every credit card you apply for (among other credit-related items) means you will have a hard inquiry on your report, you want to do good research, consider whether you need the product, and apply accordingly with the knowledge you have a good shot at getting the product.

Recommendation: Mamoru Oshii Interview

I recently watched this interview with Mamoru Oshii from TIFF in 2014. I learned a lot, and it really connected the dots for me in regards to Oshii’s filmmaking. A few observations:

This interview pulls together all the pieces my partner and I have noticed in the films of Mamoru Oshii, and in particular his fascination with technology in his films. Oshii notes that he grew up during rapid modernization of Japan post-WWII. In particular, he also comments how he feels alienated from Tokyo, his birth city, because it is such a rapidly modernizing city, always changing.  Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade reflects this sentiment, as a character questions what used to exist where a pile of rubble now stands, commenting on the lapses in geographical memory among a rapidly developing city.

Jin-Roh takes an alternate view of modern Japan. Part of his Kerberos Saga, which envisions an alternate Japan where Germany won WWII, the film imagines such rapid technological development coming from a different Western power. In short, post-war Japan and its development facilitated by America weighs heavily on Oshii’s mind and manifests within his work.

Oshii notes that, in contrast to the advice James Cameron gave him, he creates the world of his films first, then the story, and then the characters. This comment makes sense in terms of his filmography, as Oshii’s films are particularly well-known for their world building, be it an alternative universe, or a technologized future. (This world building is something the Wachowski sisters took to quite well, as their Matrix trilogy is deeply indebted to Ghost in the Shell.)

Oshii’s comments near the end of the interview reflect his work as well, noting that phones function like an extension of our being, a reflection of the combination of humans and technology that takes place in his films. Curiously, Oshii asserts that we need to adapt to technology, which is a technologically determinist mode of thinking, as it is humans that make technology, not the other way around. But his comment that technology doesn’t change perhaps gets at an essentialism in how we connect to technology as human beings, though I could see who the comment could be twisted towards a more transhumanist bent.

Regardless, this interview was particularly invigorating in its middle section, and is worth a look.

Stealing Beauty

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

Stealing Beauty (1996) is another mediocre film in Irons’ catalogue, but is distinctively different. It could be called a prestige picture, as it’s written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, acclaimed filmmaker of Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor, among other films. However, it is also a Fox Searchlight Picture, and fits more in line with the rise of independent cinema in the 90s.

In fact, Stealing Beauty is distinctively from the 90s. While Irons has starred in plenty of films over the decades, his penchant for literary or historical adaptations has led him to work in period pieces, stories temporally removed from when they were filmed. The reification of his star persona as an European elite has also removed him from contemporary stories. Either way, his character are often removed from the everyday working class life, and particularly stories taking place in the here and now.

Not so with this film. While he plays a literary elite in the film, literally spending his last days in the beautiful Italian countryside, the films’ direction temporally locates the film distinctly in the 90s. At least, the opening scene does, filmed on video with distinctive 90s alt rock playing as out protagonist Lucy (Liv Tyler) rides the train to Italy. Lucy arrives at a beautiful estate in the Italian countryside, housing artists and guests from all over the world, with the excuse of modelling for the sculptor family friend. From there the main story is split into two sides: Lucy maturing into a sexually active adult, and Lucy unraveling the mystery of her true biological father. Neither story strand is well motivated or clear, leading to a lot of beautiful Italian countryside compensating for the film’s lack of plot.

For Lucy’s maturation as a sexually active adult, this desire isn’t clearly motivated, as imposed upon her by Alex (Jeremy Irons), a dying AIDS victim and writer living out his last days at the artist’s paradise. He arrives into her bedroom unaccounted, allured by the smell of her pot, and begins telling her how she should be sexually active in Italy, the country of love. “You’re in need of a ravishing”, he says, and this first long scene is quite alarming, as Alex, an elderly man, tells a young woman to become sexually active and seize the moment. While throughout the film Alex says more alarmingly obsessive lines like “She’s irresistible” or “I’m mad about her”, his scummy nature dissolves to reveal that he just wants here to enjoy life as much as possible as a result of reflecting on his own mortality.

Still, Lucy does seek out her own sexual experiences, and the film itself is obsessed with how free the Italians are in terms of sex and sexuality. Nude swimming abounds, and carefree hookups (and their drawbacks) are fully on display. The film is somewhat aware of who the male gaze sexualizes and objectifies our female protagonist, with one scene using canted angles to emphasize how Lucy’s art modelling is easily exploited and places here in a precarious, vulnerable position. Another scene of sexual violation, with Lucy escaping shaken, make it clear such lust for life, sex, and frivolity can be dangerous, particularly when exploitative men step in.

After Lucy’s assault, she tearfully explains to Alex why she really came to the estate:to find out the who here true father is. Scrawled in a book of her mother’s poetry is a handwritten poem, also by her mother, implying Lucy’s inception happened on the estate with another man. This makes for the mystery position of the film, another aspect to the story that isn’t quite as compelling as it should be. As a mystery, it isn’t really compelling, as we only have three possible men. Alex is dying of AIDS, making him a quite unlikely suspect. The other two men are possibilities, but by the time we learn of Lucy’s mystery, she has already investigated them, without us understanding the scenes at the time. This makes much of the film confusing on a plot level, with the charisma of the actors, the setting (and idealistic artistic estate in Italy), and the cinematography of the countryside papering over the lack of compelling plot. The questions that are supposed to compel us (Who wrote the letter to Lucy as a kid? Whom will she have her ‘first time’ with? Who is here real father?) are executed clearly, and aren’t investigated clearly either. As a result, much of the film just seems to wander.

While much of the film fits into Jeremy Irons normal oeuvre, its distinctive 90s indie style pops up here and there. Aside from the jarring opening sequence (using a different aspect ration and video quality), Lucy stares at the audience as she writes her own poetry, literally telling the audience what she’s feeling as the text of her poems appears on the screen. Such fourth wall breaks pepper the film, one of the many components that distinctively mark this film as a 90s film. After all, this is a film that stars distinctively privileged characters (Reality Bites, anyone?) on an estate (travel porn, with the trailer calling it a “sensual journey”), with 90s indie aesthetics (fourth wall breaks, etc.) slapped in here and there to make one dysfunctional package. There’s even a scene where Lucy rock out to her girl power alt rock music while listening to her Walkman.

As a Jeremy Irons film, he ultimately doesn’t get to do much except 1) tell us how attractive Lucy is, 2) be her emotional support, and 3) wither away and die. His characters spans from creepy to sympathetic by the end of the film, largely because his intrusive yearnings for her sexual maturity end as he becomes her surrogate father for her trip. Like in Damage, he plays creepy older men quite well. I don’t think Bertolucci actually intended Irons’ character to be creepy; instead, I think Alex is meant to be another extension of Italy’s sex-positive culture. You could also read into the full implications of Alex’s AIDS, but for now, it shows how Irons can (and will) make roles creepy, even when unintended by the filmmaker.

This film isn’t very good, and by this point in his filmography, the assumed allure of Irons no longer holds the magnetism it did when I started this series. In fact, such an ‘allure’ is rather the result of a carefully typecast image of European elitism, an image becoming more and more distasteful as Irons’ filmography goes on. Too often is Irons typecast, rather than being able to explore a range of characters and emotions. (Un)fortunately, Irons’ career went downwards after the 90s, and soon we’ll be able to enjoy the other kind of bad films in his oeuvre, the so-bad-its-good kind.

 

Die Hard with a Vengeance

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

It’ the mid-90s, and Jeremy Irons is at the height of his career. He recently won an oscar for best actor, and in 1994-1995 he starred in two of his biggest films of his career, one as Scar in The Lion King, the other as Simon Gruber in Die Hard with a Vengeance. 

Die Hard with a Vengeance (nearby referred to as Die Hard 3) is the ultimate amalgam of 90s action film clichés. The plot is quite convoluted, as suspended officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) is forced to run around New York City completely tasking to avoid a mad bomber on the loose. Of course, this hysteria merely hides the grand robbery Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) performs under the NYPD’s noses.

When I say this film has it all in terms of 90s action clichés, I am not exaggerating. McClane gets a sidekick named Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson) to cash in on the Lethal Weapon formula of white guy+black guy buddy cop vibe. Zeus himself resembles Furious Styles, the character Lawrence Fishburne plays in Boyz in the Hood (1991), with his emphasis on respectability politics and aversion to white intrusion in to the Harlem community. (In fact, Fishburne was originally offered the role of Zeus, but declined.) This enables the film to have banter about racial politics, clearly informed by the 90s multiculturalism, but also hostility. The pair, when not bogged down by the mind-boggling plot, bicker about race vaporously, as the film tries to add urban colour to the film. (McClane even pulls the reverse racism card in one pointless conversation.) The film’s insistence on these conversations prove fruitless, and are soon dropped for Zeus’ encouragement for McClane to rekindle his bond with his estranged wife.

The film is a retread of the first, so this sequel finds it must yet again tear apart McClane and his wife. In fact, McClane has regressed so far in this film to be a bumbling, loathsome, alcoholic, abrasive man. McClane no longer has the wit or charm of the first film. Instead, he is just brute aggressiveness, in stark contrast to our intellectual villain. Our villain too is a retread, the brother of the first villain also pulling off a heist caper. But Die Hard 3 suffers from sequel inflation, where the heist plot becomes bigger and more complicated to avoid seeming like a repeat of the first film.

Die Hard 3 still hits a lot of the same beats as Die Hard, inducing the vault break in scene to a particular music motif. Whereas the first film masterfully uses Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” quietly to foreshadow the vault break in, then blasts the piece as the villain celebrate their success later in the film, Die Hard 3 has one extended sequence of the vault break in to the tune of “The Ants Go Marching In”. This use of musical motif loses its potency, particularly when it’s played after the film’s slapdash ending, and the bank vault scene isn’t as fun because of its lengthy pace and lack of buildup. Die Hard 3 is a cleverly disguised retread of the first film, with enough differences (bomb threats, NYC locations, sidekicks) to mask its repetitiveness at first glance.

Now it’s time to discuss our villains, a cadre of the worst of the worst in 1990s parlance, another manifestation of sequel inflation. Commies! Iranians! Psychopaths! Germans who might be Nazis! We don’t see much of these people and their villainy, but we are told by the film that they are indeed quite evil. Instead, we see Simon Gruber in all his cheeky wonderfulness. Like his brother, offed in the first film, Simon is a sophisticated criminal concerned with high finance. Unfortunately, Irons’ presence is relegated to the phone for the first half of the film, spouting ridiculous riddles that are at first hilarious. But when he does finally appear, oh what joy he brings. Right around the 50 minute mark is the high point of the film, a hilarious scene where Irons, a British man, plays a German pretending to be American, conning the NYPD into his scheme.

While Simon is coded gay through most of the movie, wearing purple and receives gay insults, the film ends with him almost bedding his psychopathic female underling. Yet again, Irons plays European perversity, making this film not quite so different from his filmography after all.

It’s quite apparent that 90s nostalgia is at its peak right now, and perhaps for good reason. With both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton jokes, Die Hard 3 shows that everything old is new again. Perhaps now is the time for the film’s revival.

The Lion King

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

What to say about The Lion King (1994)? Well, for one, I find it overrated among the Disney Renaissance, highly beloved by my generation when quality-wise the film itself is dwarfed by Beauty and the Beast and Hunchback of Notre Dame. But Disney ranking aside, it does have one of the best characters of Disney films, period.

Scar looking menacing in The Lion King

Let’s face it, Scar got the short end of the stick in life. He didn’t get the tremendous build like Mufasa did, so he resorts to cunning. He later becomes king of the savanna, only to have a severe drought ravage the land. In the end he is hoist by his own petard, but along the way, we get a delicious performance by Jeremy Irons.

I mean it, while Irons is typecast in the role (a perverse villain), his performance is excellent, delivering a perfect mix of sharp wit and insidiousness to make you root for the villain. It helps he has one of the best Disney villain songs period. It also helps that the film poaches one of Irons signature lines from his oscar-winning role in Reversal of Fortune.

This role (along with Die Hard with a Vengeance the following year) was Irons at the peak of his filmmaking popularity, and one of the biggest roles he’s ever had in Hollywood picture. It’s left an indelible mark on the minds of my generation as a great villain.

The House of the Spirits

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

The House of the Spirits (1993) is a straight up prestige project, and right up Jeremy Irons’ alley. It’s a literally adaptation from a novel by Isabel Allende, and stars Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Antonio Banderas, Winona Ryder, and Irons himself. Of course, the reason why no one remembers this film is because it isn’t any good.

For one thing, it’s too long. Scenes just drift along with little purpose, and we get the sense that the film’s attempts at grandeur are trying to make up for the lacklustre pacing. While the novel it’s based on is an epic tale of sorts, a history of a mythologized Chile infused with magical realism, the film lacks the strength to carry its story across, further burdened by the whitewashed casting and poor makeup.

The film’s whitewashed casting is perhaps the only thing memorable about the film, as the majority of the lead character are played by white actors playing Chilean aristocrats. Last Week Tonight dredged up this film’s name in its piece on Hollywood whitewashing, and captures the issue best.

What’s worse is that the makeup job for Irons is particularly distracting. He’s made up to look like a young miner out to seek his fortune early in the film, with a distracting tan and faux-curly Latin hair. Later in the film, he look less like an old man and more like a decaying corpse.

But the film isn’t a failure because of its whitewashing. It’s a failure because it’s a tepid prestige picture, failing to incite or intrigue. It’s symbolism is obvious, its motifs trite. While the novel’s historic scope likely works in fiction, the film’s failure in adaptation leaves the story’s motifs to fall flat. The marriage parlour, Esteban (Irons) riding his house to sow the seeds for destruction; these motifs failed to register as strongly as they should.

Irons performance is passable, but he isn’t given much to do here except act menacingly. It is the worst film of his I’ve seen so far, and I’d rate it even lower than turkeys like Dungeons and Dragons. At least his performance is campy fun in that film, and isn’t a slog to watch. For this film, I admitted watching it at 1.5x speed, skipping scenes, ultimately finding that I didn’t miss anything at all.

In terms of Irons career, this film is par of the course of what he looks for: prestige pictures, often literary adaptations. House of the Spirits illustrates why such dogmatic pursuit doesn’t always end up well. Of course, Irons was at the peak of his career in the 90s, and was about to capitalize on his new-found stardom.

Women Hating in Jurassic World

 

I was reflecting on the torturous death scene in Jurassic world today, where a minor character suffers a cruel, cruel fate. From what I recall, director Colin Trevorrow has said that his intentions with the scene were to be both subversive and indulgent, creating “one of the all-time dinosaur deaths in a movie“.

The scene is the worst in the film, a stomach turning torture scene where a relatively innocent character is mauled and tossed around for 30 seconds before being devoured. It reminded me of the notion of abject horror, that in horror films, women suffer long and hard before dying, or their characters are actively aware of their peril, whereas men have quick, relatively painless deaths. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a prefect example of this, as the women characters either suffer or panic for long stretches of time, whereas the male death happen in record time. What this corresponds to is a societal acceptance, or perhaps, desire, for female suffering in film. Jurassic World appears no different, or rather, it was directed by a prick.

M. Butterfly

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

I was always intrigued by M. Butterfly. Before this series of the films of Jeremy Irons (how the heck did I start writing this series anyway?), I knew of the first as a Cronenberg picture. Having now seen it, I can affirm it holds traits of both Cronenberg films (desire and the body) and Irons films (perversity).

The film tells the story of French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Irons, playing yet another European) in China during the 1960s falling in love with opera singer Song Liling (John Lone), and all the events that span their passionate affair of over 20 years. The film, based on a play of the same name, heavily references the opera Madama Butterfly as a central metaphor for the film. Suffice to say the film has many layers of meaning imbued with it. “M.” is short for “Monsieur”, a hint of the gender bending seen throughout the film. For traditional Chinese opera, like Noh plays or Shakespearean theatre in the 1600s, were performed only by men.

This twist gets at the heart of the what the play and film analyze: the construction and exploitation of the Western, Imperialist, Orientalist, Male gaze. Rene’s ignorance of China and deployment of an orientalist gaze enabled Song to dupe him, spying on him for China. Scenes exist in the film that explicitly illustrate Rene’s enchantment with a false China, such as a short scene where he is entranced by a Chinese man catching dragonflies. What quaint people Rene thinks! These illusions of Eastern passivity and submissiveness of course are his undoing.

As the film is based on a Tony award-winning play and written by the same playwright, David Henry Hwang, the language of the film is heavily theatrical. Characters speak exactly what they mean, and are explicit in their critiques and beliefs. Song openly critiques the orientalist gaze within Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, noting its regressive view of Asian women. Rene, blinded by his orientalist fantasies, suggests that the Americans will be welcomed in Vietnam with open arms, believing Asian docility to be a reality. These fantasies are key to Song’s lifelong deception, as Song builds these illusions as well. As Song later remarks, “He was very responsive to my ancient Oriental ways of love, all of which I invented myself, just for him.”

Politics upset Rene’s grand orientalist fantasy, however. The Red Guard prove that the Chinese will not merely kowtow to Western imperialism, while later scenes is of the student protests in Paris 1968 show such unrest spreads far against the elite. (On a technical side, these scenes also allow the production designer to reuse protest signs. Lucky them.) By the end of the film, Rene finds his orientalist fantasies completely disrupted, themselves a perpetuated delusion by Song and himself. An intractable part of his own ego, Rene embraces what these illusions were all along.

Jeremy Irons as Madama Butterfly

An orientalist, narcissistic fantasy.

The use of language is notable in the film in that all character speak English, even though Rene and his compatriots are Frenchmen surrounded by Chinese citizens. Scenes between Song and other Chinese are even spoken in English. The only time Chinese is spoken is when Rene talks to Chinese laypeople. This choice to use Mandarin only when Rene is alone with other Chinese extras is to illustrate his ignorance of China, its customs, and its people.

Irons and Lone are quite good in their roles. Once again, we find Irons playing a prince of perversion, this time playing someone deranged with passion within a gender bending romance. Both Irons and Lone have a slow-burning chemistry that propels the film’s slow-but-steady pace. Lone was perhaps perfect for the role. Trained in Beijing opera and fresh from award winning productions like The Last Emperor, Lone plays the role with a careful restrain. In fact, for a Cronenberg film, this film itself is restrained, not necessarily in the story, which is highly theatrical, but in its politics. The political was largely stripped out of the film adaptation to focus on the relationship between Rene and Song. While I am unsure of the political content of the play that may have been excised, I can say that the film is one of the most sympathetic depictions of China I’ve even seen in a Western film. Any remarks about China being regressive culturally or politically are from sources we are meant to doubt and critique: the imperialist, orientalist white men, or Song as they feed orientalist fantasies to Rene. The result is a film that rather surprises me in its take on Orientalism and the male gaze.

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