M. Butterfly

by criticalhit009

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.