Since he emerged out of the psychotronica closet of his first potent but crude features, there have been two fairly distinct David Cronenbergs — the extremist/obsessive who’s been happy to exploit the fleshier anxieties of science fiction and surrealism, and the critic’s darling that sprung up around the time of the still-underrated “Crash” (1996), all the easier to laud for having left the icky aspects of genre behind him. Relative to the psychosexual force on exhibition in “Videodrome” (1983), “The Dead Zone” (1983), “The Fly” (1986), “Dead Ringers” (1988) and “Naked Lunch” (1991), it seems to me that “eXistenZ” (1999), “Spider” (2002), “A History of Violence” (2005) and “Eastern Promises” (2007) are both fairly prosaic and predictable, especially in light of the critical handstands they inspired. It’s not all as cut and dried as that, of course, but it still leaves “M. Butterfly” (1993) lingering, coyly and enigmatically, right in the middle. Cronenberg fans never warmed to this unsensationalized Broadway adaptation, and for theater fans, the film was far too odd, too self-aware, too subtle. Despite producer David Geffen’s highball hopes, it sank without a splash.
Saying “M. Butterfly” fits in with Cronenberg’s docket of ideas, from body horror to identity-versus-perception to cataclysmic sexual confusion, is nothing new, but the film’s replacement of fantasy disorientation with a freakshow true story was. And what a story, rich in double meanings and fractured realities: a French diplomat in 1960s China named Bernard Boursicot was seduced by a male Peking Opera star he believed to be a woman, carried on a years-long affair with him/her (all the while divulging state secrets, which were passed on to the Chinese), and even produced, somehow, a child, and for the length of the relationship the Frenchman never realized he was in love with a man. In Cronenberg’s closed-maze version (though shot on location, the film’s Beijing is made to resemble the Zone from “Naked Lunch”), Jeremy Irons is the diffident, dreamy bureaucrat, and the cross-dressing spy is John Lone, and though they act the devil out of the many dicey scenarios on hand (including the discreet, fully-robed, must-be-anal sex), the casting is both the movie’s ball & chain and its wittiest flourish.
Lone is the stickiness here: never for a moment is he believable as a woman (as opposed, it is said, B.D. Wong on Broadway), even if Cronenberg himself says in the DVD supplements that he worried about Lone’s name in the credits giving the game away.
But Cronenberg knew he wasn’t going for verisimilitude: I remember reading interviews at the time in which he dismissed several authentic drag queens while casting, saying they were too convincing — kinda like Christ’s last temptation, what does the diplomat’s moony ardor and credulity mean if it’s easily fooled, if we all might make the same error? (Cronenberg’s decision to avoid gotchas is so much more interesting than the near-contemporaneous and comparatively banal “The Crying Game,” whose cross-dressing hero didn’t fool me, a straight man, for a second either.) As usual with Cronenberg, there’s a sense of meta-awareness that doesn’t always jump up and say howdy — every one of Lone’s scenes is a defiant essay on otherness, scrambling received notions of femininity, masculinity, Chinese-ness, continental European-ness, even “Orientality,” as Lone’s Chinese man masquerades as a woman singer playing a female Japanese character in an opera written by an Italian man, for a French audience (played by Brits), who mistake him (or see him truly?) as a male Beijing Opera actor traditionally playing the female parts. No wonder Beijing looks like a set. Appearances are everything — as the Maoist students demonstrate outside, burning great piles of traditional dress.