M. Butterfly

Director: David Cronenberg

USA - 1993



For the benefit of those with a short attention span...
An analytical look at Cronenberg's Hwang.

The Guilty Party

Quite a change of pace from working on "mutant women"

Jeremy Irons plays Rene Gallimard: An American diplomat, stationed in China, who falls head-over-heels in love with a local opera singer. Rene lacks self-confidence-both at his job, and in his marriage to Jeanne; a push-over, if you will. All this changes after a night at the opera and a brief exchange with the headlining star, Song Liling.  

Hey! This isn't Les Miz!

John Lone plays Song Liling: An opera singer who seduces Gallimard, and later, manipulates him into disclosing secret diplomatic information. Song also harbors a dark secret, which directly coincides with harboring an Adam's apple.

Barbara Sukowa plays Jeanne Gallimard: Rene's apathetic wife.

If I hear one more of those damn mustard jokes...

Ian Richardson plays Ambassador Toulon: Rene's boss. And yes, he was also the Grey Poupon guy. No relation to Andre, I presume.

Shizuko Hoshi plays Comrade Chin: Song's espionage liaison.

My "thoughts" on the film. Thinking! Ha!

Though essentially the same story, David Cronenberg’s cinematic adaptation of David Hwang’s M. Butterfly takes sevPicturesque, ain't it?eral artistic licenses, three of which prove considerably detrimental: the method of storytelling, characterization depth, and finally, the subtle alterations to the play’s poignant finale.

The most obvious difference between the play and the film is Cronenberg’s use of linear storytelling.  In the book, M. Butterfly is narrated, for the most part, through the eyes of Gallimard; and said narration frequently jumps back and forth in time, as dictated by the storyteller.  This approach is unconventional, and if mishandled, could easily confuse the reader, but M. Butterfly is not only simple to follow, but the random cuts in narrative prove quite effective when delivering the story’s twist ending.  Though given an occasional clue as to where the tale is heading, Hwang keeps the pace a bit off-balance, thus keeping the reader guessing right up until the final scene.  Cronenberg, on the other hand, opts to relay his vision through the more traditional, chronological method.  And though, in his own right, the director weaves a fine tale, the unique delivery of Hwang’s original masterpiece is sorely missed.  Instead of gathering bits of evidence from the random times depicted, the viewer, instead, is lead down a clear-cut path strewn with clues, the end of the path, obviously, being the film’s conclusion-the unbelievable plot twist from which M. Butterfly is famous.  When viewed chronologically, the surprise ending is easily predicted; and being that said twist is the very crux ofGolly, now who could this be? Hwang’s play, it is a shame when prematurely unraveled.

Like the story’s construction, another crucial element to M. Butterfly is the question of protagonist/antagonist; specifically, who falls under what category?  Both the film and the play blur this distinction, which is good, for in this particular tale, the roles of good and evil should be subjective.  Neither Song nor Gallimard is wrong or right.  Song is a spy who manipulates, and ultimately betrays, the man who loves her.  Gallimard, on the other hand, is a womanizer; He cheats on both his wife and his mistress, and fulfills his male chauvinist fantasies at the expense of what he presumes to be a weaker Asian culture.  One glaring difference between the written word and the film, though, is the rich characterization featured in Hwang’s play-with Song, in particular.  In Cronenberg’s version, Song appears merely as a pawn in a complex game of espionage.  When the truth of her identity is revealed at the end, she, for the most part, appears apologetic about deceiving her former lover.  In the book, however, after coming clean, Song is not only unapologetic, but at some points, she nearly gloats over her masterful deception as well as Gallimard’s uninhibited acceptance of said deceit.  But even with these differences, both the film and the play maintain the role ambiguity necessary to He's from the Bureau of Funny Hats, I presumemaintain the story’s integrity.

The third, and arguably most essential, difference between Hwang and Cronenberg’s respective visions is found in the closing scene-Gallimard’s physical manifestation of his ideal woman-as well as his subsequent suicide.  Though there are some other more trivial differences, the actual execution (no pun intended) of the film‘s finale proves lackluster when compared to the original; Specifically, in place of performing seppuku, Gallimard, instead, slits his own throat with a shard of broken glass.  Considering the circumstances for his drastic actions, there is some poetic irony when Gallimard kills himself in a traditional Asian ritual.  Cronenberg opts to not only change this minor detail, but to also focus on gratuitous gore-a trademark of his earlier work.  In the play, the story comes full-circle when Song reappears in the final scene and addresses Gallimard’s corpse as “Butterfly.”  Sadly, this too is missing from the film.         

In conclusion, if having to pick the stronger of the two, the natural choice wouldInsert lame "recount joke" here be Hwang’s play-an intriguing piece of literature that tackles the complex ideas of gender, love, identity, and perception.  But Cronenberg’s Butterfly, though flawed, is a fine work in and of itself.  Adequate storytelling and beautiful visuals are enhanced by superb performances from Jeremy Irons (Gallimard) and John Lone (Song).  Though the differences between the two mediums are grievous-the method of storytelling, characterization depth, and the subtle differences in the finale-if viewing Cronenberg and Hwang’s work as separate entities, there is something to be gained from each.


Having been discouraged by love, Gallimard decides to give up on conventional life and join the KISS Army


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-- Copyright © 2000 by J. Bannerman


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