Unlike some other auteurs, David Cronenberg doesn’t typically develop long working relationships with lead actors, tending to cast for type and temperament and then moving on. Those films that do reuse the same star are few and far between, and so can be seen as stylistically and thematically linked, the repetition always appearing as a purposeful choice. One such case is the neat couplet formed by A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, two investigations of violence and masculinity utilizing self-consciously pulpy plotting, with Viggo Mortensen’s twinned performances serving as the unreliable axes around which that style hinges. Before this, the director pulled off another double act with Jeremy Irons, with two films loosely based on true stories, both radical reenvisonings of lurid news headlines that serve as segues into slippery inquisitions into the formation and maintenance of individual identity.

In Dead Ringers this is an internal issue made weirdly external, with identical twin gynecologists who otherwise function as two halves of the same personality. M. Butterfly, released five years later (with the similarly cagey adaptation of Naked Lunch slotted in between the two), shifts from the clinical to the romantic, with a sexual relationship that both defines and fractures the protagonist. Yet just as the earlier film’s atmosphere was centered around instruments and organs, with an uncomfortable parity drawn between the two, this one displaces the sexual realm away from the body and towards the external trappings which surround it, with an object of desire whose elusive obscurity serves as her most commanding trait. Playing out against the tumultuous backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, these macabre undertones skew and distort a familiar story of a colonial functionary completely out of his depth, a man simultaneously attracted and repelled by forces he cannot understand.

At the outset, Irons’ René Gallimard is a total non-entity, a meek government accountant cowed by the ex-pat French businessmen he’s supposed to be keeping in line. Making even greater use of this casting, Cronenberg seems to be utilizing the idea of the insistently English Irons portraying a Frenchman as a joke, one playing on the European characters’ repeated confusions of Chinese and Japanese culture, which the film also attempts to comment upon directly. Adapted from a play by David Henry Hwang, based on an actual ‘80s-era scandal, the story follows Gallimard as he wades into unfamiliar waters, testing his own comprehension of his adopted country’s cultural mores. After falling in love with the female lead in a performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, he experiences a steady shift in personality, becoming more commanding and assertive, a change that eventually gains him a promotion, his boss noting his newly unpleasant demeanor as the main impetus behind the bump.

The wrinkle is that the object of Gallimard’s affection, Song Liling (John Lone), is actually a man, who utilizes his pursuer’s affections as an opportunity to extract French state secrets and pass them off to a government handler. Gallimard’s apparent unawareness of this fact is made more confounding by the fact that the liaison stretches on for years, suggesting a willful, even fetishistic ignorance of his lover’s body, which remains shrouded under colorful gowns and manufactured Oriental mystique. Were Gallimard aware from the start that there were no women in the Peking Opera at this time – with all female parts handled by men in drag – the entire affair would have likely never been possible. This points to the fact that the whole thing occurs in a liminal space between knowing and not knowing, power and submission, with neither party possessing a definitive upper hand. In short, the ignorance is the point, and Cronenberg’s skillfully analytical approach splits the difference between carnal text and political subtext, pinpointing the way those in love tend to idealize the objects of their affection, while also offering commentary on the mechanics of imperial power.

An additional layer to this tension is provided by the fact that we receive very little idea of Liling’s own ideas or intentions, whether the character actually identifies as female or is merely exploiting the guise to entrap Gallimard. It’s also unclear if he’s willingly entangling the Frenchman or being coerced into doing so by the government, and if this act of betrayal is incidental or essential to the entire erotic enterprise. In the end, Liling remains as inscrutable to the viewer as the female version of himself he embodies for Gallimard’s benefit. He exerts control over the illusion, but it’s never explained what particular interest he has in maintaining it. As he notes to his handler, “He was very responsive to my ancient Oriental ways of love, all of which I invented just for him.”

In the end, Gallimard heads down a similar path, the character’s motives growing even murkier apparent as he vanishes into this romantic hall of mirrors. This transformation consummates with the climactic scene where he dons the Madame Butterfly costume, becoming both feminized and orientalized, in a final, ridiculous feat of self-abnegation. This is less a personal culmination than an act of pitiful self-erasure, one premised on a staggering lack of imagination or self-understanding. Like so many imperialists, he cements the process of aesthetic extortion by absorbing and internalizing pieces of the colonized’s culture, gaining no capacity to conceive of the damage he has done. That the new image he inhabits is filtered through an Italian composer’s perceptions of Japanese culture is key for Cronenberg, but the point is missed by Gallimard himself, imbued with a maudlin fixation on how he has changed and what he has lost, without accepting it was never his to claim in the first place.

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