To some, he’s the mad genius behind The Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers and Spider. Others, the horror maestro of The Fly, Videodrome and Scanners, and to some, a bit of a head scratcher with Cosmopolis and Maps To The Stars. Whatever you feel, few can deny the talent of David Cronenberg and his interest in the weirder, darker elements of society. His horror works touch on fears about the dangers of technology and the selfish pursuit of science, Eastern Promises looks into the strange world of the Russian mafia, and Crash explored violent fetishes in a pre-Internet world.
So naturally, what would Cronenberg do with something like say, a period piece, a seemingly safe, familiar and stuffy type of film that doesn’t gel with his experimental sensibilities? Well, before he looked into the birth of psychology with A Dangerous Method, he adapted David Henry Hwang´s Eastern tale of love and betrayal in the 1993 film version of his award-winning play, M. Butterfly.
Basic gist, in 1960s China, diplomat René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) is obsessed with the local opera, and falls head over heels for the lead performer Song Liling (John Lone), believing him to be a woman due to ignorance of the gender roles in Chinese theatre, as well as an overly romanticized view of the culture that ties into, what else, Puccini´s Madame Butterfly. However, this ‘Butterfly’ uses the Frenchman’s obliviousness to squeeze French Government secrets out of him for the Communist Movement while pretending to be in love with him as a woman.
The driving force of the film really is our two leads, with Cronenberg regular Irons being predictably solid as the typical middle-class man of the era, prim and orderly but given to flights of fancy concerning his idealised view of the Orient, though Lone is easily the bigger revelation. If you only know him from The Last Emperor and The Shadow, you´ll be impressed at how able he is to play both genders rather convincingly. If I held up a picture of him to you, in his full get up, without telling you who it is, you’d swear it was a woman (I’ve even seen other reviews across the web make comparisons to Greta Garbo, and there is definitely an aristocratic quality to Lone’s feminine guise). It’s a combination of great make-up work and Lone’s rather underrated skill to fully embrace the mannerisms of his role (this and Iceman really prove how much of a chameleon Lone was), playing up the submissive and ethereal qualities often tied to Oriental women, that make this performance so effective.
Everything else, however, is a little more par for the course for a studio period flick: the production values are lovely, giving you the full scope of a changing and often uneasy China. Howard Shore’s score is suitably moving yet also enigmatic and does incorporate Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ in at points, mainly towards the end, and Cronenberg keeps the film trundling along at a good pace. However, if you’re expecting more abstract or inventive direction, maybe playing into the themes of identity and false reality, you´ll be sorely disappointed. It’s definitely Cronenberg at his most restrained, and the script itself seems to follow suit: it’s paced a little too quickly, and some scenes feel really condensed to accommodate a film runtime, especially with regards to the relationship between our two leads, as well as the bigger changes in China.
Events go a little too quick, and you don’t get quite enough time to fully immerse yourself in the political divisions in China, the stakes of what Gallimard is involved with, and just how much of Liling is starting to truly feel for Gallimard, especially by the end. This, in turn, does dilute the emotional gut punch that it wants to have when Gallimard’s entire world and his fantasies come crashing down to reality. It’s not bad, per se, just a little deflated and the homosexual angle really isn’t played up a whole lot, so for those hoping this would be Cronenberg’s weird little lens into LGBT material, keep on looking.
However, even those complaints, I was pleasantly surprised by one of Cronenberg’s lesser known productions. Despite some writing hiccups, it’s worth checking out as another entry from the man’s distinguished and varied catalogue, and for two great performances that never got adequate recognition. Even when at his least weird, Cronenberg still finds a way to take something that should be just another bit of history-friendly Oscar bait and approach it from a more left field angle.
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