M. Butterfly
Rosa Maria Martelo
November 10, 2023

It was with some surprise that viewers familiar with David Cronenberg’s filmography watched the premiere screening of M. Butterfly, in 1993. Cronenberg had based the film on the play of the same name, by David Henry Hwang, a multi-award-winning work that had had significant success on Broadway, where it ran between 1988 and 1990. Yet, despite the strangeness that Cronenberg had teased out of Hwang’s dramatic plot, the film appeared to be far more conventional than might be expected from a director so well-known for thrillers and, indeed, horror.

Although the film’s opening titles feature an allusion to Puccini’s famous Madame Butterfly — the opera whose libretto Hwang had, to a certain extent, drawn on — both the play and subsequent film are primarily based on the real-life case of a French diplomat posted to Peking during the Maoist Cultural Revolution. Bernard Boursicot, the functionary in question, took part in a prolonged and highly extravagant affair of love and espionage which ultimately put him in prison and left the French diplomatic world gobsmacked. Headline news in both the national and international press, the Boursicot case involved a misunderstanding (or perhaps not) regarding gender identity, which the courts found difficult to understand. Even so, the cinematic world of M. Butterfly, Cronenberg’s first film to be shot outside Canada, certainly seems (at least in terms of its looks) more conventional than expected. The filmmaker, who had made the psychological thriller Dead Ringers (1988) followed by the fantastical hallucinations of Naked Lunch (1991), was known for the role that horror and science fiction played in his filmography. Cronenberg himself revealed in an interview that he had had to convince the producers to believe that he could direct a film so off-piste compared to his other work. And although we may initially think the same, we too will soon be convinced by the director when he says that the fluidity of identities was always present in his work — and that it was for precisely this reason that he wanted to adapt David Henri Hwang’s theatrical work for the screen.

M. Butterfly can be seen as a sophisticated game of mirrors interposed between different imaginations. What we see in the film are, largely, images of worlds that the leading characters project and wish to see reflected in their interactions with others. And the game begins already with the title of the film. How should we read the abbreviation M.? In the feminine, understood as referring to Madame [Butterfly] and thus corresponding to the protagonist of Puccini’s opera (an opera the diplomat discovers on his arrival in Peking)? Or should we read that M. as an abbreviation of Monsieur? Is there, in this film, a Monsieur Butterfly? And if we accept this hypothesis, to which character would the designation refer? To Song Liling, the Peking Opera performer the diplomat calls “my Butterfly”? Or the French diplomat himself? Or to an “other”, whose identity might not exactly fit any of these descriptions? And what motives might lead us to make a choice and decide one way or another? Or should we simply not decide, given that the abbreviation M. leaves the gender undecided?

There is much interplay of reflections to give our attention to in this film. We can start with the stereotypes with which the Western world has described the Orient, superimposing on it a homogenous reality with little cultural variation. Traditional Japan and the figure of the geisha Cio-cio San (Butterfly), already stereotyped in Puccini’s opera, are re-elaborated in the diplomat’s imagination, which projects them onto the reality of China during the Maoist Cultural Revolution, leaving him incapable of seeing the explosive political transformation going on around him. In the worldview of the diplomat, we should also note his vision of an Orient supposedly dominated by the superiority of the West, and also the Oriental woman as the perfect object of male desire. But there are further mirror games: for example, the idea that the “perfect” woman should meet the ideal of total abnegation projected by certain male chauvinist imaginations. Does René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons), the diplomat who dreams of being loved by such a woman — a butterfly capable of burning her wings without crying — dramatize the love affair he’s engaging in, or not? And if so, to what extent? Between the characters played by Jeremy Irons and John Lone, truth, illusion and lies become indistinguishable. Are we watching a story about love or spying? Or both at the same time? Or is it purely a case of espionage? To what extent does theatre take place in the film, and in life? How are the boundaries defined? Or are they not defined? The film premiered three years after Judith Butler published their seminal Gender Trouble (1990), in which they argued that gender is always a performed construct, built up through multiple interactions. This film would surely agree.

Rosa Maria Martelo

Ensaísta, investigadora do Instituto de Literatura Comparada Margarida Losa e professora catedrática aposentada da Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto. Doutorada em Literatura Portuguesa, tem privilegiado o estudo da poesia portuguesa e das poéticas modernas e contemporâneas. No âmbito da Literatura Comparada e dos Estudos Interartes, estuda as relações intermediais e transmediais da poesia moderna e contemporânea com as artes visuais e o cinema. Publicou O Cinema da Poesia (2012), Devagar, a Poesia (2022) e Matérias Difusas, Poderosas Coisas (2022). Coorganizou a antologia Poemas com Cinema (2010) e organizou a Antologia Dialogante de Poesia Portuguesa (2021).

Batalha Centro de Cinema

Praça da Batalha, 47
4000-101 Porto


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