M. Butterfly (1993)

m butterfly poster 1993 movie
7.5 Overall Score
Story: 7/10
Acting: 8/10
Visuals: 8/10

Fascinating story with a good cast

So-so telling of the story

Movie Info

Movie Name:  M. Butterfly

Studio:  Geffen Pictures

Genre(s):  Drama

Release Date(s):  September 9, 1993 (Toronto International Film Festival)/October 1, 1993 (US)

MPAA Rating: Movie Rating

m butterfly song liling make-up john lone

What’s behind the mask?

René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) is a British diplomat in China.  When he becomes infatuated with a performer named Song Liling (John Lone), he begins to take risks that go against his moral code.  Falling in love, René learns Song is pregnant with his child and plots a relationship with her…but Song has her own secret.  She isn’t who René sees her as, and it could cost him everything.

Directed by David Cronenberg, M. Butterfly is a romance-drama.  Following Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch in 1991, the film is an adaptation of the 1988 play M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang which in turn is a take on the classic 1904 opera Madame Butterfly (based on the John Luthor Long 1898 story).  The movie is based on the true story of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot who was charged with espionage for working with a Chinese spy named Shi Pei Pu in 1983.  The film was released to mixed reviews and a poor box office return.

m butterfly jeremy irons john lone sex scene

Um…could you turn the lights off? I’m shy

I think my first encounter with the Madame Butterfly story was Miss Saigon…and M. Butterfly was second.  While Cronenberg was known for body horror and other films, M. Butterfly shows him starting to pivot to less horror…and while it is an interesting story, I always long for Cronenberg’s body horror days.

While not a body horror, the movie does feature a strange body blurred vision.  Madame Butterfly is about the Western culture stomping all over the culture of the East like in countries like China.  Here, it appears that it is the same at the beginning. René is egotistical and thinks he’s in control.  What he doesn’t know is that he’s being manipulated due to his intrinsic racism.  Song is able to manipulate his way into René’s life and use his infatuation to force him to commit treason.  It is this Western superiority complex that allows it to happen.

Irons is good as René.  The crux of the movie is if he knows that Song is a man.  John Lone plays Song and some were angry that the posters credited him…leading the fact his character was a male not to be a secret.  I don’t think that it is meant to be a twist, and it is more about how perception and power can warp how someone sees another.  The Song Liling character’s motivation is a bit more murky, and John Lone plays that ambiguity well  by tying it into the character’s ambiguity.

m butterfly jeremy irons suicide scene

Tears of a clown?

The movie does a decent job of trying to explain how it is possible that René Gallimard doesn’t know that he’s sleeping with a man through some of the visuals tied to the story…but even the plays and performances within the movie give away the “secret”.  It is sheer will by René Gallimard that he doesn’t see Song as a man…it is a strange dynamic, but it does work in the context of the movie.

M. Butterfly is a strange story and even stranger in that it is real. The skill of taking this true story and flipping the story of Madame Butterfly is also genius. It does feel a bit out of Cronenberg’s range (he sought out the directing job after seeing the play), and it feels like it could have maybe been done differently that could have helped propel it from a good film to a great film.  Completitionists probably will want to see it if you are a fan of Cronenberg, but it doesn’t feel like many of his films.  Cronenberg followed M. Butterfly with Crash in 1996.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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