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Sex With Dave
David Cronenberg on the making of M. Butterfly

David Cronenberg M Butterfly

 

by Denis Seguin

How do you sell a puzzle for which most people have the solution? This was the question most asked of director David Cronenberg as he hunkered down before the media onslaught at the Festival of Festivals. His film, M. Butterfly, the opening night gala, is based on a famous play itself based on an infamous French espionage trial.

Bernard Boursicot and his lover, a Chinese opera singer named Shi Pei Pu, were charged with spying against the French government. Boursicot, a diplomatic functionary, met Shi in Beijing and they passed 20 years of on-again, off-again romance before they were arrested and Shi was revealed to be a man.

Understandably, this sensational revelation fired David Henry Hwang's play, a hit on Broadway and the West End. The title comes from Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly, the story of a young Chinese woman abandoned by her American lover -- Hwang's play reverses the roles and milks the story for political and parodic points. Sniffing movie pay-dirt, producer David Geffen commissioned Hwang to write a screenplay and then hired Cronenberg to direct it.

"I liked the screenplay better than the play," says Cronenberg. "Hwang wasn't offended because he was very open to creating something new, not trying his play over again. The play is didactic, very schematic. He was making political points but that wasn't what interested me in the story or the play."

Cronenberg was impressed that, despite the politics and parody, despite the gender twist, the conclusion packed an emotional punch. He surmised that a more visceral, less ironic approach could retain that power while exploring new ground.

"I saw it as the story of two people composing the opera of their lives. They're not only creating their romance, they're creating their own version of China and ultimately they're creating their own sexuality. Sexuality is an invention, it's a creative thing. We've long ago separated ourselves from whatever biological imperative there was and it's been that way for thousands of years. This story is an extreme version of this inventing but the extreme illuminates the ordinary versions of what each of us does."

This auto-invention, says Cronenberg, also applies to politics. The diplomat is basing Franco-Chinese relations on the basis of a relationship with a woman who isn't even a woman. The viewer may feel superior about the diplomat's self-deception but the irony is that the view of the East through Western eyes reflects a similar delusion.

Viewers of Cronenberg's previous films will be excused for wondering where in M. Butterfly the director hid the messy stuff. There's nothing in the film that could be added to his chamber of horrors: the bursting skulls of Scanners, the sinister gynecology instruments of Dead Ringers or the insect dactylographs of Naked Lunch.

"I'm always amazed by other people's emphasis on special effects in my films," says Cronenberg. "Quite frankly, I don't care about that at all. To me, M. Butterfly thematically connects very naturally to my other films. John is my creature."

"John" is John Lone, the star of such films as Iceman, The Last Emperor and The Year Of The Dragon. Cronenberg auditioned 60 men before casting Lone as the diva opposite Jeremy Irons' diplomat.

"The difference," says David Cronenberg, "between a play and a film is the close-up. I met B.D. Wong (the actor who played Lone's role of Song Liling onstage) and he's a lovely man but he is a very ugly woman. He could never convince anyone in a close-up." After considering a "perfect transsexual" and fraternal twins -- girl plays Song "in drag," boy plays Song exposed -- Cronenberg realized that he was "looking for a creature who could be all things at once."

Cronenberg solved his own puzzle by freeing the character from gender. "That's what detonates the potential of the film," he says. "Biomedical gender becomes irrelevant."

Denis Seguin
(1993)