Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Under 250: M Butterfly

David Cronenberg is not a shrinking violet of a filmmaker. From gross out effects to inner darkness of mind and body, he’s one of few masters of the surreal to capture the beasties that crawl out from the deepest recesses of human experience. Unfortunately in 1993’s M Butterfly, his attempt to play things straight leaves the film distant and lackluster.

Based on a play of the same name, the film explores the real life relationship between a Beijing opera star posing as a woman (John Lone), and the French consulate officer (Jeremy Irons) that loves her for 20 years without discovering that she's actually a man. Irons and Lone provide solid performances, with a surprising level of chemistry. Lone especially deserves credit for his nuanced performance that plays with ambiguity, occupying the gray areas of gender with ease. While it’s hard to believe that anyone could be so dense in regards to their lover’s gender, the fact that it’s a true story removes the fault from the film.

The film is beautifully shot, showcasing the elaborate staging of Chinese opera and the exotic splendor of a 1960’s China caught between the old and the modern. Within these performances and strong backdrop, Cronenberg asks many important questions about gender, race, art, and love, but they never quite feel sincere. He’s distant here, just as the Asian Song Liling is from her white lover Gallimard. It gives the film a Kubrick-esque feeling that may work on a grander scale, but feels forced and cold in such an intimate tale focused on love and obsession, especially from a director usually so skilled in addressing inexpressible emotional themes on screen.

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