Directed By: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jeremy Irons, John Lone, Barbara Sukowa, Ian Richardson
|Studio: Warner Bros.
Film Length: 101 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Subtitles: English SDH, French
Release Date: May 26, 2009
The FilmAdapted by David Henry Hwang from his own Tony Award winning play, David Cronenberg's M Butterfly tells the story of French diplomat René Gallimard (Irons) stationed in China in the mid-1960s. He becomes obsessed with Chinese Opera star Song Liling (Lone). Their five year affair (In the play and the true story on which it is based, the affair lasted 20 years) spans the Chinese Cultural Revolution and most of the Vietnam War. It also leads them down a path of deception, surprising revelations, and charges of espionage
While the film had all the hallmarks of an art house hit inclusive of the Tony Award winning pedigree of its source play, a respected cast, and the quirky auteurist vision of David Cronenberg, it was seemingly beaten to the punch by Farewell My Concubine and The Crying Game. These films released immediately prior to M Butterfly addressed similar themes involving romantic confusion and Chinese Opera and made their successor seem a bit late to the party.
This was an unfortunate coincidence since Cronenberg's M Butterfly is a strong film in its own right with a unique take on its material. The film moves along at a steady pace and avoids major mis-steps right up until its protracted conclusion. While one can understand the desire to give a riff on Madama Butterfly an operatic ending, the staging of two of the final scenes, one an extended conversation between René and Song Liling in a paddy wagon, and the other a theatrical performance by René in an unlikely setting, strain credulity beyond the breaking point.
Jeremy Irons plays a man so blinded by his romantic idealism, or possibly by his unwillingness to accept the truth of his own nature that he pursues his obsession oblivious to the havoc it wreaks on his personal and professional lives. Even though the film is based on a true story, René Gallimard is at his core an inscrutable man. Irons' performance effectively creates a sympathetic character out of a man who may not even fully understand himself on a conscious level. John Lone's early training in Chinese Opera made him uniquely suited to play Song Liling. Lone strikes an appropriate balance between the required romantic, deceptive, and oddly sympathetic aspects of the role. Irons and Lone even manage to come close to making the final scenes palatable despite the implausible circumstances surrounding them.
The film is beautifully shot by Cronenberg with his usual crew including Production Designer Carol Spier and Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Chinese and Parisian locations are used effectively and matched seamlessly with the studio interiors. The film is full of strong images such as an effectively symbolic sequence where Chinese revolutionaries are throwing the richly detailed multi-colored costumes of traditional Chinese Opera productions on a bonfire. Howard Shore provides an intriguing score that creates a bridge between the western and eastern opera music featured in the film while still effectively underscoring the drama.
The VideoThe video transfer fills the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. Were it not for the unwelcome intrusion of high contrast edge halos, this would be about as perfect a representation of the film as one could hope for on standard-definition video. The edge halos are small enough not to be too obtrusive on modest size displays, but they are frequent enough and intense enough to be a major annoyance on large projection set-ups.
The AudioThe only audio option is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro-Logic matrixed surround track. It is a very well done mix that uses all four of the matrixed channels aggressively. Ambient sounds and music support fill the surrounds while music and effects are spread wide across the front channels with dialog rooted in the center. Given the modest 192 kbps bitrate, I was impressed by the fidelity of the track on disc which does justice to Howard Shore's interesting score as well as the passages of western and eastern opera.
The ExtrasFirst up is a featurette entitled David Cronenberg Discusses M Butterfly. It runs 15 minutes and 56 seconds and is presented in 16:9 enhanced video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio. It is an excellent interview interspersed with clips from the film and pans across behind the scenes still photos. It efficiently packs the sixteen minutes of useful information one normally gets in a full-length audio commentary into a single featurette. Cronenberg progresses fairly linearly through the process of making the film starting with his initial awareness of the stage play when he saw a graphically intriguing promotional poster and then progressing through his pitch to producer David Geffen selling himself as the director, his thematic approach to the material, the casting, production, and public reception of the film.
The only other extra is the film's theatrical trailer which is presented in 4:3 full-frame video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio.
PackagingThe single-sided dual-layered DVD-9 disc is packaged in a standard Amaray case with no inserts.
SummaryDavid Cronenberg's 1993 cinematic adaptation of David Henry Hwang's M Butterfly is finally making its DVD debut. Somewhat overlooked upon its initial release, it is ripe for a critical reassessment despite an ending that heads somewhat off the rails in terms of credulity. It is presented on DVD with an image marred only by sporadically annoying instances of high contrast edge ringing and with a very good 2.0 Pro-Logic matrixed surround track that exceeded my expectations. Extras consist of the film's theatrical trailer and an outstanding new interview featurette where Cronenberg discusses the film's production in satisfying detail.