Review: M. Butterfly (1993)

m butterfly image

I’m no sexual mastodon, but I would like to think I know which orifice my member is occupying at any given time, or maybe I’m doing it all wrong, who knows!

Screenplay By: David Henry Hwang
Directed By: David Cronenberg

As soon as I read that David Cronenberg was not the writer of M. Butterfly warning signs went off in my head. As the movie progressed what I feared would happen was happening. If this were a Cronenberg penned film as well as a Cronenberg directed film the ideas that the actual writer, David Henry Hwang, only hints at would have been explored fully. Alas, that is not the movie I received and I have to look at M. Butterfly for what it is, while always being aware of what it could have been.

The story of M. Butterfly is frankly preposterous on face value, but it is not a story meant to be seen at face value. The big question is how could René have spent twenty years with Song, had sex together numerous times and never realize that Song was in fact a man? The idea Hwang, or maybe Cronenberg, puts forth is that René knew all along, but he chose to live the lie because the lie was more appealing to him than the truth could ever be. If you are willing to accept that theory then the rest of the film loses its preposterous sheen and becomes a very believable tale.

The lack of heat or tension in M. Butterfly’s story is a problem all by itself, but that is a minor problem compared to how the message of the film is handled. The idea of a man engaging in a relationship with someone he doesn’t know is also a man, or even knowingly engaging in a transgender relationship is interesting. More than that it is a springboard for numerous topics relating to sexuality, when you take into account that René is French and Song is Chinese there are even more issues to be discussed. How their different cultures view sex, the role reversal in their relationship, the idea of sexual dominance as well as gender in sexual roles are all ideas that M. Butterfly explores. These are ideas I looked forward to seeing explored in depth, but M. Butterfly never goes beyond the surface. It hints at its sexual related issues, but when it needs to explore deeper the film shrinks back as if it is afraid to proceed any further. M. Butterfly is a classic case of a topic getting too little coverage, and that is sad to say about a Cronenberg film.

Jeremy Irons gives another good performance, he has the sexually repressed individual down pat I do believe. It’s debatable whether John Lone pulls off the role of Song. On the one hand he doesn’t need to be womanly to us, only to René, but if we are to fully believe René could fall for Song then shouldn’t we believe Song is a woman just as much as René does? I don’t know the answer to that question as I see both sides of the argument, in some ways Lone’s look worked for me but in others it failed. I know some who didn’t buy Lone’s performance for a second, or the idea that it shouldn’t matter to us whether he looks womanly or not, your mileage will probably vary on this topic.

On the scale of David Cronenberg films M. Butterfly resides near the bottom of the list. We all know what Cronenberg is capable of, and he is capable of much more than we are allowed to see in M. Butterfly. I enjoyed that the film was willing to tackle such taboo sexual subjects, but it needed to explore those subjects more attentively. Cronephiles such as myself will find the limited value in M. Butterfly, but everyone else can keep on walking, because this dude does more than look like a lady.





One response to “Review: M. Butterfly (1993)

  1. Pingback: Postulating & Pontificating: Directing Props, Pt. 2! | Bill's Movie Emporium

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