M. Butterfly (film)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
M. Butterfly is a 1993 film directed by David Cronenberg. The screenplay is by David Henry Hwang and based on his play of the same name. Jeremy Irons and John Lone star, with Ian Richardson, Barbara Sukowa and Annabel Leventon.
Loosely based on true events (see Bernard Boursicot), the movie concerns René Gallimard, a French diplomat (Irons) assigned to Beijing, China in the 1960s. He becomes infatuated with a Chinese opera performer, Song (Lone), who spies on him for government information under orders from the Chinese government. Their affair lasts for twenty years, with Gallimard all the while apparently unaware (or willfully ignorant) of the fact that in traditional Chinese opera, all roles are performed by men. Eventually, Gallimard betrays his country and is tried for treason, which forces him to face the truth about his relationship. Faced with the unbearable truth that his lover is actually male, he himself takes on the role of Butterfly, the woman who died for the sake of an illusory love.
One theme of the film (as with the play) is Orientalist stereotypes, but Cronenberg removed many of the political overtones from the story in order to focus more intensely on the relationship between Gallimard and Song. A key line in the film is "Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act."