M. Butterfly

(Canada/USA - 1993)

by Mike Lorefice & Dan McGowan

Cast: Jeremy Irons, John Lone, Barbara Sukowa, Ian Richardson, Annabel Leventon, Shizuko Hoshi,Richard McMillan, Margaret Ma
Genre: Fantasy/Drama
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Henry Hwang, based on his play
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzsky
Composer: Howard Shore

"I'm a man who loved a woman created by a man. Anything else simply falls short." - Rene Gallimard

Mike: M. Butterfly deals with the thin line between fantasy and deception. Starting at a fairly young age and lasting at least until death, everyone fantasizes situations based on their sexual preferences. Some of these dreams are absolutely unattainable, while many have a possibility but often you need a better calculator than the 8 digit I have beside me for all the zeros before the 1. These kind of fantasies are more or less about keeping yourself occupied. Basically "good" and "bad" depends on how you use them and how seriously you take them, if they are fun or a bad obsession. They can make you happy or drive you to accomplish something, but they can also make you long to escape the real world or drive you crazy because the physical world can't satisfy you like the one you've created in your head.

Rene Gallimard  (Jeremy Irons) believes his fantasy is one of the attainable ones. This belief is rooted in the Western myth that Oriental women are waiting to submit to the cruel white man. Like most myths, there is some truth to it. There was a time when they were forced to submit and certainly there are at least a few who would willingly succumb to a French diplomat like Gallimard, but that's where the deception comes in. It's highly unlikely they would submit to him because it's their nature, their destiny to do so like he believes, but rather for their own reasons like his money, power, or prestige. The lie of every fantasy is that you are in total control. You are the puppet master supreme, your mind dictating every move and word from the other person(s) and not allowing any free and independent though.

Song Liling's deception is the ultimate con because "she" understands what a man wants from a woman and the limitations of fantasies. The manipulation is so perfect because Song makes it seem like Gallimard is always in total control and "she" is the perfect submissive, pleasing her masters every need and want. She makes Gallimard's fantasy just as "perfect" in reality because she makes him believe she's giving him everything he imagined.

Gallimard is the ideal victim because he understands what he wants, but doesn't have very much knowledge of the subject. This is partly because he can't transcend the upbringing of a different culture even though it's his desire, but also because what he's really seeking is something exotic. For this reason, his fascination is with the women of another culture. He can pretty much have his pick of Eastern women, but they no longer interest him because there's no freshness. It's boring because it's been done, and he feels there's nothing to discover. In a weird way, his problem is every pair of breasts is the same to him. He says to an Eastern woman, "you look exactly as I imaged you would under your clothes."

Song's true sexuality, male, would result in a quick and abrupt ending to most relationships, but actually makes "her" the perfect partner for Gallimard. Gallimard's fantasy is not sexual; it's imperialistic. He wants control, but he wants to learn as much as he can about who he's controlling.

Gallimard's fantasy is also rare because it's not with a woman at all. I'm not referring to the technical sense of his chosen partner right now, rather I'm stating that his fantasy is conceptual. The woman is not what he wants. What he wants is a Charon of the theoretical Eastern and Western world, someone to transport him across the river sticks from the Western world he's sick of to the Eastern world he's fascinated with. Right now he is merely in the East. His fantasy is that his Butterfly will allow him to transcend his culture, to truly become an Easterner.

Song is an opera singer who plays the lead female role in M. Butterfly. If Gallimard knew anything about the Beijing opera he'd know that meant Song was a man, but as Song says the reason men play the female roles is that "only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act." Song is an actress who performs the opera of their love.

One of the most interesting issues in M. Butterfly, the one that's up for the most interpretation, is Song's true feelings. As Gallimard has access to American secrets such as troop deployment and movement in Vietnam, Song's job is to pass this information along to the communist party. Song doesn't do this because "she" wants to, but because she has to. As the movie progresses, the party bans art and Song is forced into hard labor in the field. Song's sentiments certainly aren't with the party.

Song: "The Oriental woman has always held a certain fascination for you Caucasian men. Is that not true?"
Gallimard: "Yes, but that fascination is imperialist, or so you tell me."
Song: "Yes, it is always imperialist. Sometimes... sometimes it is also mutual."

The thing that makes M. Butterfly so interesting is very little has the same meaning if you know the real situation as it does on the surface. There's the truth, the lie, and the gray area. The key difference between Gallimard & Song is Gallimard sinks deeper and deeper into fantasy to avoid reality, while Song sinks deeper and deeper into deception to become the ultimate fantasy.

Song never dresses like a man, claiming in order to best serve the proletariat the deception must be practiced as much as possible. I don't for a moment think Song is a homosexual, but rather "her" fantasy is of transcending sexuality and becoming the perfect lover. At one point Song says, "the days I spent with you were the only days I ever truly existed," which is also a good example of the dialogue operating at more than one level.

Song doesn't know whether Gallimard knows she's a he or not. He never explored "her" body and "was very responsive to my ancient Oriental ways of love, all of which I invented myself, just for him." When Song has been exposed as a man and both are going to jail for treason, Song reaches out in a last ditch effort to keep the fantasy alive. Song ends the deception, showing Gallimard his nude body for the first time because if Gallimard accepts "her" as a man then "she" will truly have achieved her goal of being the "perfect" lover. Song is hurt when Gallimard, clinging to any possible remaining form of denial, won't look and says, "How could you, who understood me so well, make such a mistake? You've shown me your true self, and what I loved was the lie, the perfect lie, that's been destroyed." If Song was still acting, unless the goal was to bring the cruelest end to the fantasy "she" made thrive for all these years, I can't imagine this course of action would have been taken. It's too risky, too desperate. I think a case could be made for this being the only true representation of Song the person in the film, and that has nothing to do with the masculine aspect. While Song is hurt because Gallimard doesn't love him for what he is even though he worked all these years to transmogrify himself into something else, his fantasy is not the only thing he lives for, the only thing that gives meaning and purpose to his life like it is for Gallimard. Unlike Gallimard, who is more crushed by rejecting Song and claiming this is not the person he loved than Song is for being rejected, he can ultimately surrender the dream even though it's painful.

"It's probably the only way we can give our death a meaning, because otherwise it's completely arbitrary." - David Cronenberg on suicide

Dan: Many of the central themes in M. Butterfly exist throughout the cinema of David Cronenberg.  One of those central themes is the desire to become something else, to change one's being and the frustration that occurs when this is either found to be impossible or the efforts lead to a botched transformation.  Gallimard is fascinated with the idea of Orientalism and with his relationship with Song he seeks to become what he is not. As events are played out, Gallimard ultimately commits suicide.  I believe that the film suggests Gallimard believes he is completing his dream (transformation) of Orientalism with this final act. In typical Cronenberg fashion, we the viewer are left with the feeling that Gallimard's fatal act is an act of desperation and folly that exposes the "dream" and its fallacies in the first place. Cronenberg's films deal in these lessons of dreams and resulting ruination when the obsession becomes too great. Gallimard sees suicide as a last ditch attempt to salvage the dream, but the act is just a bitter end to it.  This is typical of Cronenberg's cinema, where once the crucial steps are taken and there is no turning back, suicide remains an attractive option.

The similarity can be seen in Cronenberg's other films such as The Fly where the main character commits suicide because his immense dream to transcend space and time through the invention of teleportation was shattered when a mistake was made, causing an altogether different and gruesome transformation.  This theme can also be seen in Dead Ringers where twins, fascinated with the idea of transcending the individual seek to overcome this by becoming a "collective" whole, commit suicide to keep the dream alive (they can be "one" in death, they reason).  It can be said then that David Cronenberg is very much an "auteur" whose films deal mostly with the same consistent theme throughout his career.  Screenwriter David Henry Hwang's play therefore suited Cronenberg perfectly because of its similarity to his work.

One gets the sense, even though we know it to be not true, that Gallimard was a Cronenberg character all along; that is how easily Gallimard fits into the circle of protagonists he has concocted in his films.  Gallimard obsesses over the Other, the exotic and new.  His figurative obsession is manifested in his relationship with Song Liling, a Peking Opera performer who is not what "she" seems.  She represents all the exoticism, romanticism, and fantasy of China to this Westerner.  By "owning" her ("Are you my Butterfly?"), he subconsciously owns the fantasy of becoming the Other, completing the transformation.  Hwang says that, "Such a fundamental component of the relationship is the fantasy.  Without that, it is no longer the same relationship.  Gallimard is in love with a butterfly, he's not in love with this Asian man."

In fact, Gallimard believes that the path to completion is through Song Liling.  Gallimard constructs his own version of China using Song Liling.   Cronenberg calls this "auto-invention":  "This also applies to politics.  The diplomat is basing Franco-Chinese relations on the basis of a relationship with a woman who isn't even a woman.  The viewer may feel superior about the diplomat's self-deception but the irony is that the view of the East through Western eyes reflects a similar delusion."

The crux of the play is that this delusion catches up with Gallimard, much like delusions of grandeur/transformation catch up with Brundle in The Fly or Bev and Elli Mantle (also played by Jeremy Irons) in Dead Ringers, leading to the destruction of Gallimard as he refuses to give up on the dream and makes a last ditch attempt to reclaim it.  Some critics such as Roger Ebert have asked how it is possible that a man can go 20 years without knowing that his lover is a man as well, they even question the real-life account that the play and film are based on.  The simple and quite poignant answer is that when you are a willing delusional, it is quite easy to avoid things that may shatter your dream/delusion.  There is a certain underlying subconscious knowledge that is reasoned away because the dream is too important.

Hwang says of his play: "Of course, I had the same reactions as everybody else - how could it have happened?  But then on some level it seemed natural to me that it should have happened, that given the degree of misperception generally between East and West and between men and women, it seemed inevitable that a mistake of this magnitude would one day take place."

Critics like Ebert who cannot get beyond the improbability of the relationship are missing out on the metaphor of East and West along with ignoring the limitless capacity of self-deception in the human mind.  Hwang's play/screenplay exposes the Western imperialist fantasy in the shadow of the Butterfly relationship.  We can view the relationship in a symbolic light if our sensibilities cannot get over the implausibility of such a relationship.   The play works on multiple levels, and so does Cronenberg's vision of the play.

In this story and other Cronenberg films, however, there comes a time when the delusion is exposed to the protagonist no matter how hard they try to ignore the signs.  It cannot be ignored...and inevitably the shock, sadness, and horror lead these characters to close out their lives by reaching for the dream a final time as a final escape.  It is an attempt to live in the delusion by dying in the delusion.  In Dead Ringers, the twin gynecologists' professional lives have been shattered because of delusional radical ideas of grandeur and physical delusion (drug use), their outside relationships are severed, and they find themselves clinging to their past where they could always count on each other.  Things have changed. Their delusion that nobody could come between them (a woman does) and that they would always be there for each other have been shattered right in front of their faces.  They cannot ignore it anymore, so they reach out for the dream in a final attempt at being "one" again, by killing themselves by way of attempted physical "re-attachment" (Siamese/conjoined physical mutilation).  They believe they are achieving the dream by doing this, but the viewer knows that this act/suicide just proves the fallacy of the delusion in this violent end to the dream.  In The Fly, Brundle's (Jeff Goldblum) delusion of wondrous invention goes awry and an altogether different, painful transformation slowly takes place.  Eventually the gory physical transmogrification becomes too much to ignore and the delusion of acceptance (he temporarily "likes" being more "advanced") he took on midway through the film only proliferated things to where he tries to salvage things by going in once again to the teleportation pod as a final way to reclaim himself.  The act just compounds the problem and he begs for death while he puts a gun up to his head.  Death is an attractive option when dreams are blown apart, even though they try to camouflage the suicides as realization of the dream.

In Gallimard's case, after his self-deception is cruelly exposed and reality comes shining in, he attempts what comes natural to him...avoid reality by striving for the dream of Orientalism with a final act that may guarantee no disappointment.  In the stage version, Hwang gives us more insight into Gallimard's dissatisfaction and disillusionment with his lot in life in the West.  We can better understand Gallimard's fascination and fantasy and the powerful grip to which he holds on to it:  "In China, I was different from all other men.  I felt...touched...My life in the West has been such a disappointment." His perception of his Butterfly is gone:  "There is a vision of the Orient that I have...It is a vision that has become my life." How lucky for him that one of the most Oriental (exotic) of all things in Western eyes is seppuku, ritualized suicide.  Gallimard welcomes this, in his mind it is the means to which he can achieve his vision of the Orient fully.   Gallimard's vision is clear.  It is a vision of "slender women in cheongsams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils.  Who are born and raised to be the perfect women.  Who take whatever punishment we give them, and bounce back, strengthened by love, unconditionally."  It is the Western male's fantasy, of domination of the fragile submissive woman that has populated literature and film for ages like in the original opera Madame Butterfly.

Hwang and Cronenberg flip that story upside down as Gallimard's somewhat imperialist fantasy is shown to be built on a foundation of deception and delusion.  The fantasy simply does not exist.  In the story, the "Butterfly" commits suicide after being crushed by the Western man, which it romanticizes much like Gallimard ("die for the love of unworthy foreign devils").  In a twist of irony, as a last effort Gallimard seeks to become the Butterfly.  He puts himself in the romantic's role of a love for those without worth and the suicide is the symbolic sacrifice that he craves, "Death with honor is better than life...with dishonor." We as viewers see it for what it is, a violent end to the dream of Orientalism that does not reaffirm the fantasy as existing, but reaffirm that it is in fact a fantastical delusion.  Plainly put, Gallimard cannot live without keeping his fantasy alive even knowing it to be false, so he kills himself because there is finality to death.  Going out believing in his mind he has achieved the dream leaves no possibility of it being exposed to him once again for being false.  There is no coming down off a high, when the method of achieving that high is death.  We who go on are able to see that downside, though, and the tragedy that is Gallimard.  It is also interesting to note that in the film version Gallimard slices his throat with the edge of the mirror he has used to put on the makeup of the Oriental woman (Butterfly) to kill himself, and after he falls his bloody face in makeup is reflected in the mirror.  Reflections are not real; mirrors are tools of illusion.  It is a powerful shot to end the film on.

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Mike: Jeremy Irons is the perfect choice to play Gallimard. He understands the line between fantasy and reality so well, and really knows how to work it. We see how his vision of the Orient has become his entire life. His astuteness lends a credibility to the diplomatic aspect, which works simply because he's so convincing. The audience realizes his basing his politics on his own fantasy with a woman that doesn't even exist representing the whole of her people. However, Irons gives a measured, reasoned performance that is so good you want to believe him even though you realize he's blinded by his own entrancement. The irony of his character is he claims the French lost Indochina because they failed to learn about their enemy, which essentially is the same reason (he doesn't know who he's dealing with) he loses to Song. He also claims the Americans will win in Vietnam because the Asians will always submit to the greater force, which also proves false in his relationship with Song. When "she" asks why he chose a poor Chinese woman with a chest like a boy, he says "not like a boy; like a schoolgirl waiting to be taught." Song responds, "I know you're not threatened by your slaves education," which is true but that's one of his biggest problems.

Lone, as far removed as possible from the gangster he portrayed in Michael Cimino's underrated The Year of the Dragon, is impeccable as well. He looks and sounds a lot more female than you'd expect to the point I thought he was a woman before I realized this was the butterfly so it had to be him. He is so intellectual that you see how Gallimard could believe he was going to learn a lot from this person. I like the seriousness in which he delivered his comical lines with. It was funny when he reversed the white devil scenario and made it a blond American married to a short Japanese man so Gallimard could see the suicide was the act of a "deranged idiot" rather than a "pure and beautiful" suicide. Lone's Song always delivers his lines to make a point even if the point is not always what Gallimard thinks it is. The thing that makes him stand out though is he acts with the delicacy and sensitivity of a female.

Dan: David Cronenberg and his films have often been categorized as being in the "exploitative horror" genre or being read only as "horror" films. That is simply selling the man's many films short.  They simply cannot be confined to the limitations of an often misguidingly ridiculed genre.  All tragedies are horrific, that is what makes them tragic to the viewer.  Cronenberg is an expert at showing men dissatisfied with their current identity who seek the heavens, seek a new existence, or a new state of being but only find hell at the end of the journey.  His films often detail the gruesome downfall of men whose hubris becomes too much for their mental and physical being. M. Butterfly shows us such a man.  Not only are crises of gender and sexuality called into question (a limited reading) but questions of imperialism and race are also brought forth in the Gallimard character's attempted mutation.   M. Butterfly along with Cronenberg's other films give us the answers to the troubling thoughts that all of us deal with.  We are creatures that are sometimes not comfortable in our own skins and often look to others to "create" an identity.  It makes you wonder how many of us really are living a fantasy.

Mike: People always say they'd give their arm, even their life, for one night with their ultimate babe. M. Butterfly shows it's not about attaining or even maintaining. Gallimard had a few decades with his "perfect woman," the woman who really was true to his fantasies because unlike the dreams of simply meeting or being with someone that fall way short because they are different in reality than in your mind, Song is the most willing participant. Still, it's simply not enough because like every fantasy, it's not real. That is, after all, why we call it a fantasy.


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