MiniReview: "M. Butterfly" (film)

When love ends in a courtroom: Bernard Boursicot, the man on whom the Jeremy Irons character in M. Butterfly is based.

What is it?

 A film, directed by David Cronenberg, released in 1993. 


What is it about?

It’s a film adaptation of a popular play, which was in turn based on a true story, about a French diplomat in China who falls in love with a Peking Opera singer and has a long affair with her, only to discover years later that she’s a he.


Did you say this is based on a true story?

Yes. I know … Truth is stranger than fiction, and all that. Although, from what I’ve read, the truth may have been even stranger.


What led you to this “old” film?

Yet another of the leads given to me by reading Gay Life Stories, which has a section on Shi Peu Pu, the real-life man on whom Butterfly is based.


So, what’d you think?

It’s a fine film. It’s entirely credible that Rene (Jeremy Irons) would fall in love with this woman (played by John Lone), as he believes her to be. I found the whole thing utterly absorbing. It's a moving love story.


I’m guessing it doesn’t end well.

Well, it couldn’t, really, could it, in Maoist China, with him being a diplomat and—oh, I haven’t mentioned this—Butterfly is a spy. She’s using him to get confidential info she can pass on to the Chinese.


Right, that adds a whole other dimension!

You bet. The political becomes a mirror of the personal and sexual, with questions of domination, seduction, and letting others “in” (or not). No coincidence that the film’s final image is a door being slammed shut. And there's the whole issue of "role playing," which again plays out on different fronts, but most notably with respect to gender. The film really got me thinking too about issues of aggression/submission. Also about illusion, and to what extent love is based on illusion and its close counterpart, deception. As Butterfly says to the Jeremy Irons character at the end, when he presents himself as a man: “I’m still the same person.” But the Irons character wants nothing to do with him now. All in all, it’s a very powerful story.


Sounds as though you were pretty captivated, John. So what rating would you give it (using the Michelin-guide 3-star system)?:

1 star. Definitely worth a watch.


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