During a performance of the Beijing Opera in 1964, Rene Gallimard (Jeremy Irons), a timid French functionary, looks up and sees what he believes to be the woman of his dreams: an exotic Chinese diva performing the title role in Madame Butterfly. As Gallimard stares, face fixed in an expression of romantic rapture, we can’t help but notice that there’s something a little off about this particular diva. Is it our imagination, or is she sporting a five o’clock shadow?
From its earliest scenes, M. Butterfly (R), David Cronenberg’s version of the celebrated David Henry Hwang play, seems an act of perverse ineptitude, a Crying Game in which the big illusion is no illusion at all. Didn’t Cronenberg realize that the camera reveals what was hidden on stage — and that John Lone, the gifted Chinese-American actor who plays cross-dressing temptress Song Liling, has the broad-faced handsomeness of a matinee idol, something no amount of makeup can disguise? As Gallimard and Liling commence a passionate — and sexual — affair amid the sinister glumness of Mao’s China, M. Butterfly inadvertently turns into the story of the world’s most gullible human being: a European gentleman too refined to notice that his shy little ”butterfly” bears an uncanny resemblance to Bruce Lee.
Cronenberg directs this doomed romance in the same flat, claustrophobic, night-of-the-zombies style he employed in Naked Lunch; as a dramatist, he’s still stuck in Interzone. Yet even if Hwang’s play had received a more seductive treatment, there’s a softheadedness — a pity — built into the material itself. Unlike The Crying Game, which used Jaye Davidson’s melancholy sexiness to create a meditation on the way that love strips us down to our core identities, M. Butterfly, the story of a man who falls in love with a man (but needs to fool himself into believing that he’s a woman), comes close to suggesting that heterosexuality is itself a construct, an illusion. It’s Hwang’s fashionable notion of artifice trumping reality that’s skin-deep. C-