In Mel Brooks' The Producers, the characters played by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel pay a visit to the Park Avenue home of eccentric theatrical director Roger De Bris, who greets them in a flowing peignoir. "Max," Wilder querulously points out to Mostel, "He's wearing a dress." "No kidding?" Mostel remarks dryly. Mostel may just as well be the audience surrogate for M. Butterfly, particularly for an audience with fond memories of David Henry Hwang's operatic romance and theatrical tragedy in its stage incarnation. David Cronenberg's film adaptation (with a script by Hwang) is a failure for many of the reasons that the stage production was a success, but the film is additionally hampered by Cronenberg's '90s lurch towards conventionality. Like a transvestite on a desert island, M. Butterfly is all dressed up with no place to go.
Based on a true incident involving a French diplomat who carried on an affair of 18 years with a man that the diplomat thought was a woman, M. Butterfly begins in 1964 Beijing, when French foreign service employee René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) becomes smitten with Chinese opera songster Song Liling (John Lone). Before long Gallimard is enamored with Song Liling and they begin their Affair to Remember, but bracketed by the condition that Gallimard will not be allowed to feast his eyes upon Song Liling sans clothes. Gallimard agrees to the strictures but, as he climbs up the diplomatic ladder, the Communist government gets into the love affair, corralling Song Liling to become an informant for the government. When Gallimard's lust can no longer be contained and he demands nudity, Song Liling runs out of Gallimard's life and he becomes a lovelorn husk, forever pining for his lost love. He leaves China and accepts a two-bit diplomatic job, but then Song Liling appears again to Gallimard, just in time for Gallimard's arrest and subsequent sensational trial for treason, which exposes his affair for the sham it is.
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