Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Cronenberg Series Part 11: There is a Vision of the Orient That I Have

In 1964, a French diplomat named Bernard Boursicot who was posted in Peking, China met an opera singer named Shi Pei Pu.  For twenty years they carried on a sexual affair as man and woman, one that included -- so Shi Pei Pu insisted she had born, and so Boursicot believed, or accepted, or who really knows -- a child.  By the end of it, it was revealed that Boursicot had been feeding secret documents to Shi Pei Pu and so both were arrested and convicted of treason.  In the course of the investigation and trial, it was further revealed that Shi Pei Pu was a man who, so went the story everyone told, had fooled Boursicot into believing he was a woman (the child Shi Du Du, later Bertrand, had been purchased).  The disguise seems to have stemmed from the fact that even in the 1960s, female roles in opera were traditionally played by men. The two of them did their prison time and were eventually released.  Boursicot had been only 20 years old when he met Shi Pei Pu, and Shi Pei Pu had been 26.  When their affair ended, both were in their 40s.  Boursicot attempted suicide in prison but failed.  Shi Pei Pu died in 2009 and according to the New York Times obituary, he and Boursicot had last spoken just months before Shi Pei Pu's death, and Shi Pei Pu had told Boursicot that he still loved him.  When contacted about his former lover's death, Boursicot said "He did so many things against me that he had no pity for, I think it is stupid to play another game now and say I am sad. The plate is clean now. I am free."

Now here's where it gets complicated.  In this lengthy article about the scandal, writer Joyce Wadler describes an evening when Shi Pei Pu described the plot of the classic Chinese opera The Story of the Butterfly:

Long ago in China, there lived a beautiful girl named Zhu Yingtai. The daughter of a learned man, she dearly wished to attend one of the imperial schools, but being a girl she wasn't permitted to do so. It troubled her, particularly because her brother did badly in school.

She made a plot with her brother; they exchanged clothes and she went to school in his place. She was a brilliant student. In school, she met a handsome boy, Liang Shanbo, and they came to love one another. Liang, however, couldn't understand the strange attraction he felt for another boy. Zhu, who was attracted to Liang as well, yearned to tell him her secret but refrained, not wishing to bring dishonor to her family. Then word came that she had to go home: her family had found her a husband. Finally, the girl revealed her true identity to her friend. Declaring his love for her, Liang asked her to marry him. But though she loved him, Zhu couldn't disobey her family.

"It is too late," she told him.

Zhu returned home. Distraught, Liang took his life. Zhu's family insisted she proceed with her wedding. She agreed, but said she must first go to her beloved's grave. There, beneath the willows, she threw herself on his tomb and died. Her family, finally understanding how much their daughter loved Liang, buried her beside him. The souls of the two lovers turned into butterflies and flew away together. And over the grave willow branches grew and intertwined.

Not, I think you'll agree, irrelevant.  However it's also not the plot of Madama Butterfly, Puccini's famous Japan-set opera about a selfish and cowardly American sailor whose casual marriage to a devoted and love-struck young Japanese woman named Cio-Cio-San (which translates, roughly, to "butterfly") culminates in his return to America and her years-long wait for him to return, and finally his abandonment of her, and her suicide.  It was this opera, not The Story of the Butterfly, that playwright David Henry Hwang used to shape the metaphors in his 1988 play M. Butterfly (an ingenious title), a heavily fictionalized telling of the story of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu.  The production originally starred John Lithgow and B. D. Wong, it was an enormous success, and it won the Tony for Best Play, among many other awards.  David Cronenberg being who he is, and in something of a replay of his experience with Dead Ringers, when he knew the true story before reading the novel his film would eventually sorta kinda but not really be based on, Cronenberg had heard about the play but had neither seen nor read it, and was instead inspired to adapt it into a film by reading Wadler's article in the New York Times. His knowledge of the true story mingled with the play being brought to him by his agents (he'd told them he couldn't wait another three years to make a film, and told them to bring him something "unusual") made a film of M. Butterfly directed by David Cronenberg pretty much inevitable.

In that film, Jeremy Irons (becoming the first lead actor to work with Cronenberg twice, something that has become more common recently) plays RenĂ© Gallimard, a French diplomat in China, in 1964.  Gallimard is married to Jeanne (Barbara Sukowa), and is sort of timidly combative with his wasteful and dishonest colleagues in the embassy.  One night, an embassy-sponsored event puts him in the audience for a performance of arias from Madama Butterfly given by Song Liling (John Lone).  As mentioned elsewhere, at that time it was common in Chinese opera for men to play women's roles, but Gallimard is plainly ignorant of this -- this information is only given to the audience, almost in passing, much later in the film in a scene between Song and her Communist handler Comrade Chin (Shizuko Hoshi).  Anyway, Gallimard is struck by Song, and he seeks her out.  Song also seems interested in him, though initially she keeps a wary distance between them by explaining to him the plot of Madama Butterfly, an opera of which he was ignorant (he makes a point of telling someone at the event that he's fooled people in the embassy into believing he's cultured), and wonders how romantic a Westerner would find it if the races were reversed so that at the end an American woman committed suicide because the Asian man she loved had deserted her. Song says that Westerners would think she was mad.

At this point it occurs to me that to summarize the rest of the plot in the normal way would be at best redundant, because while M. Butterfly is fundamentally a work of fiction and not merely the true story of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, many of the essentials are the same, and those have already been laid out.  So what, in the film, is key?  Song's deconstruction of what she, and Hwang, see as the West's attitudes toward the East are, I've gathered, a very big part of the play (I confess with much embarrassment that I haven't read it), though this is severely downplayed by Cronenberg.  In both Cronenberg and Cronenberg and David Cronenberg:  Interviews with Serge Grunberg, he talks about meeting with Hwang and the two men disagreeing about Hwang's conclusions and criticism, but Hwang was apparently perfectly fine with Cronenberg taking the creative reins on the film (and for the record, the screenplay is credited to Hwang, and though guided by Cronenberg was, by Cronenberg's admission, almost completely Hwang's own work), so certain things that were strong in the play were tamped down, and other, more Cronenbergian elements took over.  Such as:  okay look.  I said things got complicated.

In the Times obituary of Shi Pei Pu, which Joyce Wadler also wrote (she would eventually go on to write a book about all this) it's mentioned that it was revealed in Boursicot's diary (treason was involved, I understand, but that still kind of makes me queasy) that before his relationship with Shi Pei Pu, his only sexual experiences had been with men, and in China he was looking to settle down with a woman.  This fact is hard to ignore when wondering about how he could have been fooled, which he has always claimed was the case.  Sex between him and Shi Pei Pu was always in the dark, they both say, and Boursicot was sensitive to her claims that Chinese tradition, and her own shyness, forbade certain things, such as ever seeing her naked.  Fair enough, and anyway I'm not out to prove Boursicot a liar, but how does all of this manifest in Cronenberg's film?  Well, again, Gallimard is married, so we can assume that he has had at least one heterosexual relationship in his life, but given everything else in the film I do have to wonder why the character of Jeanne Gallimard is even included.  Her existence as the lover who is thwarted does reflect Madama Butterfly to some degree, but she has so little impact on the film that this would hardly justify it.  Because look at what's important.  Though one or two shots play up a certain femininity, very little effort has been put into making John Lone look like a woman.  He dresses in women's clothes, and his voice has been altered (for better or worse), but the gender ambiguity is not played up too much.  This film isn't, as no one would be faster to bring up than Cronenberg, The Crying Game.  Speaking of which, before going too far, here's what Cronenberg has to say (to Serge Grunberg) about that film, which came out the year before:

...the people who can't relate to [M. Butterfly], they are literalists, you know, and I think, unfortunately, The Crying Game put them even more in that frame of mind...Because it is a literalist movie.  I mean, only when the audience sees the guy's cock do they realize that he's a guy and then they feel betrayed, and it's all very straightforward really, But it's not subtly in certain ways, and it provided a context that encouraged people to say, "Well, it's obvious John Lone is not a woman," and so on.

At no point in the film does it ever feel like Cronenberg wants or expects the audience to think Song is a woman, because the only thing that matters is that Gallimard, for whatever reason, behaves as though she is.  But Lone's gender being clear and Gallimard's quick interest in Song does indicate something about his sexuality that is plain in the true story of Boursicot, but is only here to wonder and guess about.  In one scene, Gallimard has sex with another diplomat, a German woman named Frau Baden (Annabel Leventon).  In the scene, Gallimard walks into the bedroom and Frau Baden is nude.  He stops, and is taken aback, but he knows why he's there.  Why is he shocked?  He says "You look exactly how I thought you'd look without clothes on," a strange thing to say.  When Leventon made the film, she was about 50 years old, and maybe, although I sincerely doubt this, Gallimard is reacting to the fact that this 50-year-old woman resembles a 50-year-old woman, and Song, not to mention his own wife, are more youthful.  More likely is the fact in terms of the classical female shape, Frau Baden, well, you know, has one, and Song doesn't.  Possibly because when you get right down to it, that shape doesn't appeal to Gallimard, and never has.

Meanwhile Shi Pei Pu seems to have dressed as a woman only in his occupation as an opera singer, and as a spy.  In fact, as if the true story needed to be even more baffling, he met and befriended Boursicot as a man, and only convinced him later that he was a woman who had been raised as a boy.  The point being that this was evidently something he could do, not necessarily something he was.  In M. Butterfly, however, when Comrade Chin visits Song to talk about Gallimard, she finds Song in what they both refer to as her "disguise." Chin is disgusted, demanding to know why Song would dress like that when she didn't have to, when Gallimard wasn't around, and Song says it's because it's easier to play the role demanded of her by the Chinese government if she plays it constantly, if it, in other words, becomes her life.  Lone clearly plays this as someone telling a lie:  Chin found Song in a moment of comfort and relaxation.  There is no disguise here.

As Cronenberg says, it's all about transformation, and about our perception, and construction, of reality.  Although it wouldn't be a Cronenberg film if it wasn't also about the destruction of the transformation, the perception, and even the reality.  With a simplicity that borders on the invisible, Song and Gallimard begin to cross and blend and swap transformations, beginning in the prison van they're both loaded into after the trial.  Song is dressed in a suit and tie, and his appearance was presented in court as a means to shock Gallimard, which he dutifully was.  In the van, Song finally strips for Gallimard, but now, of course, Song claims to not want this.  Song has a cold disdain for Gallimard at the beginning of this scene (similar to the remorseless attitude Bouriscot claims Shi Pei Pu showed in real life), perhaps because Song is angry at Gallimard's hypocritical self-delusion, but eventually this all softens, and Song's love for Gallimard, and despair that this won't matter at all now, is shown to be genuine (as Bouriscot implied was the case when Shi Pei Pu made one last proclamation of love to him).  But Song is right, Gallimard rejects him.  His dissection of Puccini's opera wasn't wrong after all.  Hell, The Song of the Butterfly has somehow even transformed into Madama Butterfly.

But the swapped transformations continue.  In prison, Gallimard has become a performer.  He's a figure of mockery, now that his story has become an international scandal, and he gives the other inmates a show, a venue for them to laugh at him.  At the end of the film, he's giving his final performance.  He dresses like a geisha and talks about the unworthy men of the West and what they do to the women of the East.  When Bouriscot, who is still alive today, attempted suicide in prison, one can assume that shame and ruin, personal and professional, drove him to it.  When Gallimard successfully kills himself on stage -- as a character in an opera would die, on stage, as part of a show, regardless of the actor's ability to get up after the curtain fell -- it isn't shame but guilt and loss.  He still loved Song, but he convinced himself he didn't, or couldn't, just as he'd convinced himself to believe what Song told him, and as he'd convinced himself about his own sexuality that led to a marriage that he tossed aside like it was nothing.  And you know, maybe that explains Jeanne's place in this film -- to show how easily he could turn his back on her.  Of course, it's not guilt over what he's done to Jeanne that leads Gallimard to put that glass in his throat, nor the loss of her.  He was married to her, but she meant nothing to him.  It's Song who he treated badly, Song who he wanted and will never be with again.  The delusion is all his.


John said...

I might have seen parts of this here and there, but don't think I ever sat through the whole thing. It has to be said that the role of Gallimard sounds almost tailor-made for Irons, who at the time seemingly specialized in playing the upstanding, self-possessed, outwardly successful man of the world, whose carefully cultivated reputation and enviable lifestyle are eventually brought crashing down by the hidden parts of himself, as they escape from his control. His role in Damage especially comes to mind, along with the not totally unsuccessful remake of Lolita a couple of years later.

Michael Philip Wells said...

John Magwitch - Not to mention his role in Dead Ringers!

bill r. said...

Irons is an actor who seems to specialize in things that no other actor alive living or dead has ever specialized in before. So it's kind of surprising he and Cronenberg have only worked together twice.

John said...

Terrific actor, no doubt about it, one of the best. I don't know of another who could've pulled off Dead Ringers' tragic double-act with such unshowily skilled and finely differentiated performances.