M. Butterfly: Cronenberg Misguided Version, Starring Jeremy Irons

David Cronenberg’s “M Butterfly” is a flawed adaptation of the hit Broadway play by David Henry Hwang, who also did the screen adaptation. It’s one of the Canadian helmer’s most problematic films, largely due to the source material, again proving that what was semi-effective on stage fails to convince on the big screen, when placed under the scrutiny of the searching camera.

The tale is more interesting in theory than in practice. A chance encounter at a diplomatic reception in mid-1960s Beijing sparks the beginning of a passionate interracial affair. After being deeply moved by a performance of Puccini’s tragic opera, the incandescent “Madame Butterfly,” Rene Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) is introduced to a beautiful diva (John Lone) from the Beijing Opera. An accountant as the French embassy, engrossed in the minutiae of expense account, he is lured by his own exotic “Butterfly” and is drawn into a world whose very foreign nature intrigues and even excites him.

Rene and Butterfly meet surreptitiously and the staunch conservative and married Rene finds himself flirting with the temptations of a double life. Obsessed with the mysterious enchantress who has entered his life, Gallimard is drawn into a haunting, intoxicating affair.

However, nothing is what it appears, and the illusions of Gallimard’s grandiose love are stripped away with tragic consequences, when he realizes that his mistress is a man. At the most banal and obvious level, viewers raised the basic question of what kind of sex the two men had, though the work’s defenders interpreted it as a symbolic political saga about the blind naivet and ignorance of white colonialism.

You can’t fault the actors, who are doing their best, but the premise is so preposterous that their effort to convince is defeated from the start. Ultimately, the material is too theatrical for an inventive and visionary director like Cronenberg.