Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Jeremy Irons, John Lone, Barbara Sukowa, Ian Richardson. (1993, R, 101 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 14, 1994
The lost Cronenberg? Well, almost. Warner Bros. apparently had the devil of a time puzzling over how to market this decidedly non-mainstream adaptation of David Henry Hwang's award-winning Broadway play. Relegated to the shadowy recesses of their release schedule, the film is appearing in a few select theatres across the country with virtually no push behind it. It's understandable, though, that Hollywood suits might find themselves scratching their heads over this film; it's an odd mix of historical drama, love story, and spy thriller, with just enough of director Cronenberg's trademark hyper-realism thrown in to keep things charged. Set in 1964 Beijing, the film follows the budding romance between a French consulate member (Irons) and a Beijing Opera diva (Lone). That men traditionally play all the female roles in Beijing Opera is a fact that seems known to everyone except Irons's consul. Irons is excellent as a heretofore meek, lower-ranking dignitary who finds his entire life transformed by his escalating obsession with the diva, whom he calls “my butterfly,” in reference to Puccini's opera. Eventually leaving his wife behind, Irons forsakes both his family and his allegiance to his government and eventually begins to willingly assist in the treasonous movement of classified information to the Chinese. Less a lesson in espionage than a love story, Cronenberg uses the film as a vehicle for his recurrent theme of personal transfiguration: Irons's character is so transformed by this experience (and one that he never could have predicted to begin with), that he eventually ends up mad, both his mind and soul crushed by the weight of it all. It doesn't work as often as it should. The relationship between Lone and Irons too often seems staged, or forced; there's little if any of the spark that needs to be there in order for the audience to swallow some of the more, um, unconventional aspects of the story, and a love story sans spark is, at best, a wounded beast. Peter Suschitzky's cinematography, on the other hand, is absolutely stunning. Filmed in dark ambers, reds and blues, he brings Sixties-era Beijing to life in a way few people ever have (a shot of Lone and Irons having a picnic beside the Great Wall is downright breathtaking). M. Butterfly is Cronenberg's most strenuously flawed movie to date. Despite the sheer gorgeousness, it ends up feeling false and, towards the end, rushed. How much of this is due to Warner's lack of confidence in the finished product is anyone's guess.