David Cronenberg's "M. Butterfly" seems based not so muc on the prize-winning play by David Henry Hwang but on Kipling's bitterest epitaph -- "Here lies a fool who tried to hustle the east."
The fool is played with the usual deer-in-the-headlights fragility by the great Jeremy Irons, whose specialty is ironic unraveling. In this film, he gets to unravel like a sweater attacked by a velociraptor, but the spectacle is somehow less moving than it is unnerving. The whole thing gives you the creeps.
Irons is Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat in Beijing in the '60s who sold out his country and his career for the love of a woman, a Chinese opera singer of great beauty and sexual craft. Wouldn't be the first time. (The story is based on a true event.) But what marked this case as different from all the squalid honey traps of espionage history was the fact that Gallimard learned at his trial some years later that the sexual partner with whom he'd been sharing his bed and his government's secrets was actually a man.
Like -- how dumb can a guy get? He is surely history's biggest chump.
The movie never answers key questions that you don't have to be a movie critic to wonder about, but it does suggest sexual practices that would indeed make gender-discovery somewhat unlikely. Still, the enigma is so compellingly strange, you don't have to be entirely prurient to want to know more.
The play, which I never saw, was evidently theatrical and hypnotizing; the movie, which has also been written by Hwang, DTC is literal and dull. Cronenberg seems to have forgotten he directed such sensationally visceral movies as "The Fly," "The Brood" and "Dead Ringers"; he thinks he's David Lean, making a stately epic.
He never comes close to unleashing the bizarre potential in the material; he refuses to play it as comedy or as tragedy. Instead, it's a largely flat and uninvolving chronicle of Gallimard's folly. And it never overcomes its most pressing problem, which is the fact that John Lone, in the role of Song Liling, is never remotely convincing as a woman. Cronenberg would have been better off hiring Dustin Hoffman; at least "Tootsie" looked real!
The screenplay does manage some amusing dry ironies. The most obvious of these is its relationship to Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," a work most Asians hate because it portrays them as naive pawns giving themselves in total love and obedience to an unworthy Western lover. Hwang and Cronenberg pound this one out of the park: "M. Butterfly" is about a Westerner who gives himself away in total love and obedience to an unworthy Asian lover, and they run the bases backward doing handstands in a bizarre climax where the seduced and abandoned Irons totally subsumes himself in the role of the Butterfly, cross-dressing and following her footsteps to her fate.
A less conspicuous irony is somehow more interesting: The movie holds that Gallimard's career failure was in some sense a reflection of the folly of his sexual politics. That is, feeling triumphant and magnificent in his mastery of his Asian mistress, he extrapolated and predicted a Western triumph over Asia in general, most notably of Americans over Vietnamese. This analysis soon proved absurdly wrong, and he was shipped back to France and obscurity before notoriety.
He never figured it out that "she" was the one who was doing the hustling.
The film does offer one pleasing possibility: that sometime down the road it'll end up on a double bill with another of today's releases in a sub-run house. I think the marquee would go something like this: " 'M. Butterfly' and 'Mr. Jones,' Together at Last!"
Starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone
Directed by David Cronenberg