The 1990s gave us two brilliant films dealing with sexuality and deception. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) and David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly (1993) were riveting works that asked the question: “Can love transcend conventionality?” After all, both efforts involved “straight” men falling in love with (spoiler alert) men who were living their lives as women.
What interests me in Cronenberg’s take on a similar situation is the fact that he comes from the world of horror, and specifically, body horror. While most people are quick to cite Scanners (1981) and his version of The Fly (1985) (which is a rare instance of the remake clearly surpassing the original) as memorable works of the director, rarely does his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983) get mentioned, which, I think is one of his finest cinematic moments which involves no mutations or gore. While it is a film about the paranormal with the main character being able to see future events, it is also a love story.
This brings us to M. Butterfly which contains real-life “horror” of being trapped in a society that frowns upon homosexuality and not being able to be accepted for who you truly are but at the heart of it, is a tragic love story much like The Dead Zone. This is where David Cronenberg shines.
When you look at his body of work, starting with The Fly more so than his earlier projects, underneath the terrifying and gross transformation that shy scientist Seth Brundle endures into an insect (shades of Kafka, anyone?) it is also a romance. Seth cannot be with his beloved, Veronica. This time it isn’t a society that drives the lovers apart, it is biology. In the case of The Dead Zone, the same pattern emerges. Shy schoolteacher, Johnny Smith loses his soulmate, Sarah Bracknell after a serious car accident renders him in a coma for four and a half years. She marries another man and has a child. After losing her, this is the beginning of the end for Johnny and the start of a catastrophic character arc.
Yes, David Cronenberg is a masterful genre director but he knows his way around a romantic story. Oddly enough, there is a bit of the romantic in him as a creator. Although he dealt with the gross subject matter in his former films, he also dealt with hearts that were decimated beyond repair. Following in the same vein as the aforementioned features, Dead Ringers (1988) showcases Jeremy Irons in a dual role as twins who are gynecologists that fall for the same woman with dire consequences. Once again, a pairing that cannot be sustained because of madness, co-dependency, and an odd relationship between the twin doctors Beverly and Elliot which definitely has homoerotic undertones.
No one plays a sad, heartbroken, and obsessive lover quite like Jeremy Irons. He has that down pat. Yes, in his later years he portrayed more devious individuals but in Cronenberg’s hands, his performances in Dead Ringers were sublime. There is something feral about his onscreen presence where you can FEEL the passion and intensity bubbling to the surface. He moves with the grace of a cat stalking its prey. However, as the wounded Beverly, no one can channel inner pain and turmoil quite like Irons. Cronenberg capitalized on his strength and the actor delivered one of his finest characterizations in years. An effort that should have culminated in an Academy Award nomination.
Cronenberg would utilize Jeremy in another feature. One which had its roots in a celebrated play from David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly. It was based on the true story of a French diplomat, Bernard Boursicot, who was seduced by Peking opera singer, Shi Pei Pu in an elaborate ruse to obtain critical information for the Chinese government. As was the custom of the day, Pu was a man who played a variety of roles written for women. This theater tradition is hardly unusual since it started in Greece and continued through to Shakespearean times.
Delving into the backstory, we find that Boursicot, who was educated in same-sex boarding schools, began having liaisons with his fellow students. However, he didn’t believe himself to be attracted to his own sex because he felt it was a “rite of passage.” This is when he decided that he was going to pursue women. He met Shi Pei Pu when he was twenty years old and working as an accountant in the French Embassy in 1964. They became romantically involved. In the ’80s, both were convicted of espionage and spent time in prison.
M. Butterfly in the deft hands of David Cronenberg is quite a bit to unpack. Not only does it deal with having to cloak your true sexuality but it also broaches the subject of how Western men view Eastern women as submissive “butterflies” whose sole purpose in life is to cater to the whims and desires of the clearly dominant and superior white male Europeans. That is how Irons’ character of Rene Gallimard (the stand-in for Boursicot) treated his lover, Peking Opera singer, Song Liling (played by the incredibly talented, John Lone, from Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987)).
The film didn’t touch upon Gallimard’s background at all. We see him as a heterosexual with a wife who has affairs with women. So, when he finds out that his precious Song who gave “birth” to their son (in reality and in the film, the child was purchased from a doctor) is a man he is shattered. His Butterfly isn’t the innocent schoolgirl (his description of her) that he made her out to be, and the illusion has broken his heart.
Throughout M. Butterfly, Rene tries to make himself believe that he didn’t know Song was a man all along. Inwardly, he recognizes the truth. Yes, whenever the pair were intimate, she would always request to keep her garments on stating that it was because the Chinese were modest people. On some level, Gallimard was aware of the fact that he was attracted to men sexually but he chose to maintain the illusion of being straight.
Perhaps the most emotional scene in the movie occurs when the couple are being transported to prison after being convicted of espionage. Song who identifies as a gay man and not transgender disrobes in front of his former paramour. Vulnerable and still very much in love with Rene, he tries to convince him that he is still his Butterfly.
We can see the anguish in Gallimard’s eyes. He wants so very much to be with his lover but he cannot allow it. As the rejected Song collapses in tears on the floor of the van, we cry with him. That moment is horror filled. There is no blood or gore but the impact is the same as if someone had been killed. In this case, it is Song’s illusion that Rene loved him.
Viewing this film again, 27 years after seeing it in the theater, it is still one of David Cronenberg’s best works. And in today’s social climate, it remains incredibly relevant.