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-