As David Cronenberg returns to the big screen this summer with Crimes of the Future, his first feature film in eight years, the Canadian king of body horror is rightfully getting his due from fans and critics alike. Over the course of nearly 50 years, Cronenberg has redefined cinema’s approach to the body in all its visceral, gut-wrenching, and terrifying forms. Never one to shy away from controversy, he’s been giddily promoting Crimes of the Future by hyping up how many walk-outs and fits of revulsion it will inspire. No feat of grotesquery will be that surprising for his fans. Indeed, Cronenberg might have elicited more shock from his viewers when he made something vaguely respectable. But not really: this is still David Cronenberg, after all.
In 1993, Cronenberg directed M. Butterfly, an adaptation of the Tony award-winning play by David Henry Hwang. It seemed like an odd fit for the filmmaker, especially after the one-two-three punch of The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Naked Lunch, a trio of movies that can best be described as Cronenbergian. Here was a serious drama with no blood or pus or agonising psychological explosions. It was, shock horror, an Oscar bait movie. Inspired by a true story, the film focused on a French diplomat named René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) in 1960s China who becomes infatuated with a Peking opera performer, Song Liling (John Lone). As their affair grows more torrid, the diplomat seems unaware (or wilfully blind) to two details: One, that his great love is spying on him on behalf of the Chinese government, and two, that Song is a man.
Critics bemoaned the seeming timidity of M. Butterfly, positioning it as Cronenberg’s misguided attempt at mainstream prestige cinema. How was it that the man who brought us exploding heads and genetic mutations would shirk away from full frontal nudity, of all things? Everything seemed so neat, so tightly controlled, yet for so little in return. But that was the point: to not see is to be blinded by one’s own delusions. Many viewers seemed hung up on the idea that René wouldn’t know the difference between sex with a woman (he is married to Barbara Sukowa) and sex with a man. Lone, an exceptional actor who never received the credit in Hollywood that he deserved between this and The Last Emperor, often seems to have five o’clock shadow in some scenes. Yet Song’s gender is not a secret to everyone else, and Cronenberg never positions it as a Crying Game-esque twist for the audience. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Chinese opera would know that female roles were more often than not played by men. What Cronenberg does with a subtle yet scathing focus is reveal the wilful ignorance of white supremacy and heteronormativity.
René goes out of his way to believe Song’s increasingly ludicrous tales over two decades. When Song tells him that “she” can’t be naked during sex because of ancient Chinese modesty customs, he agrees because it fits with his insultingly racist view of Asian women. Making frequent reference to the opera Madame Butterfly (he calls Song his butterfly more often than by their name), he heaps praise on the narrative of the wilting flower who cannot stand to be apart from her white savior. Song slyly tells a fellow spy that “Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” For his lover/target, that’s certainly the case. To be more specific, René’s fetish for Song highlights how he sees the Asian female experience as something only a white man can define to the rest of the world.
While mostly restrained in ways more akin to Brief Encounter than Rabid, M. Butterfly is still thoroughly interested in the ideas that Cronenberg has spent his entire career exploring. The objectification of the body through the gaze of misogyny and racism defines René’s relationship with Song, which the latter uses to his benefit. Every suspicion he has is cloaked in the safety of these insidious forces of bigotry. It is only when the pair are put on trial for spying and Song appears in court with short hair and a masculine suit that the illusion is finally destroyed. Trapped together in the back of a prisoner transport van, Song removes his clothes and forces René to look at the truth that’s been staring him in the face for 20 years. We don’t see what René sees, but Irons’ reaction speaks volumes to his fears. It’s a moment that feels as thoroughly Cronenbergian as anything in his classic body horrors. Stripped of the operatic styling of the original stage production, the chilly realist focus of the director’s gaze denies René the benefit of hindsight or his prior fantasies. Everyone else saw the truth, and his refusal to do so is grotesque in a way that merely showing it could never truly convey.
M. Butterfly is typically written off as one of Cronenberg’s worst, a misguided slip into normalcy before returning to his patented madness with the likes of Crash and Existenz. He never made anything this muted again, which is a shame because M. Butterfly is still very much a narrative with his name all over it. it may not be as viscerally terrifying as seeing your own organs on display, but being confronted with your smothering fantasies of bigotry by those you oppress is perhaps a more realistic fear for many of Cronenberg’s viewers.
“M. Butterfly” is available for digital rental or purchase.