M. Butterfly

(David Cronenberg, USA, 1993)


M. Butterfly is an underrated film by a major director. David Cronenberg's career took a surprising turn beginning with Dead Ringers (1988). Fans of his earlier triumphs including Videodrome (1983) wanted Cronenberg to remain the postmodern prophet of virtual reality, plunging his audience into a hallucinogenic mediascape where nothing is solid or certain.

But then Cronenberg became a stern, old-fashioned realist, at least in a philosophical sense. He shows the real world as cold, cruel and eternal, while the fantasy realm is a hopeless delusion inhabited by pathetic dreamers. These days, the typical Cronenberg hero is a dupe enslaved to his own tormented desire – and no one fits this bill more completely than Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) in M. Butterfly.

Many reviewers have found this tale of Gallimard's erotic obsession with an enigmatic Chinese opera performer (John Lone) laughably implausible. Viewers will certainly twig to the truth underlying the situation long before Gallimard does. But this is precisely what Cronenberg wants us to see: the absolute absurdity of the hero and his fantasy projection, oblivious while the pitiless forces of the real world gather to destroy him.

Some critics find Cronenberg's work unfailingly misogynistic and homophobic. I think they may be missing what gives his films their true dramatic power. M. Butterfly is a relentlessly grim film and, as in The Fly (1986) or Naked Lunch (1991), Cronenberg holds only one figure to blame for the prevailing sickness of the world: the wilfully fooled, emotionally retarded, heterosexual male. Indeed, the masculine self-loathing which drives this auteur's work is so palpable it is almost suffocating.

Gallimard's fatal delusion is not only sexual but also political in nature. Cronenberg masterfully sketches a history of dirty international politics – not in a documentary fashion, but as a nightmare looming in the periphery of the hero's vision.

In one of the most inspired moments of this memorable film, Gallimard finds himself down and out in Paris during the riots of May 1968. The Maoist chants of the students seem to mock his own mad, romantic dream of the Orient – while also indicating that a new and even sturdier form of psychological delusion may have just become a collective condition.

MORE Cronenberg: eXistenZ, Crash

© Adrian Martin October 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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