Review: the film “M. Butterfly”

This 1993 film featuring Jeremy Irons as a French diplomat (actually he was the bookkeeper at the French Embassy in Beijing) falling in love with an actress played by John Lone was based on a true story. These are the ’60s and China is held in the steel fist of communism. The first time he sees Lone as Madame Butterfly singing Un Bel Dî on stage captivates him. How the Frenchman continues to believe the actress is a woman throughout their love affair is a fascinating thesis. Throughout their time together–and he lived in China several years–he remains ignorant of the fact that Chinese opera roles featuring women are always played by men.

Butterfly tells him she is pregnant and goes away from him to have her baby. What she does is confer with her communist handler about obtaining a suitable-looking boy child to bring back to him. Gallimard has been promoted to Vice Consul. Once the baby has been displayed to him, Butterfly leaves again as a prisoner. The performing arts have become discredited as decadent. In his turn, Gallimard loses his post in disgrace for incompetence and returns to Paris.

After we have seen Butterfly breaking rocks with other political prisoners, she then appears to Gallimard suddenly in Paris. She inveighs upon him to become a diplomatic courier; as before Gallimard has no idea she is a man or that she is a spy.

When they are both caught by French Securité Gallimard finally learns he has been duped all those years. Butterfly, garbed in a man’s suit, is escorted back to China by a communist official. His fate is unremarked but certainly appears to be desperate. Imprisoned in his turn, Jeremy Irons then displays the finest acting I have ever seen from him. There should have been a riot of violins accompanying his final moments, or perhaps there was and I was so caught in the scene that the violins formed a righteous part of it.

The title “M. Butterfly” to me implies that “M” stands for Monsieur, not Madame. The creators of the play certainly aren’t making the distinction clear, leaving the ambivalence in the air. I wonder what has happened to John Lone?


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