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M. Butterfly (1993)

 -  Drama | Romance  -  1 October 1993 (USA)
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Ratings: 6.8/10 from 5,799 users   Metascore: 43/100
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In 1960s China, French diplomat Rene Gallimard falls in love with an opera singer, Song Liling - but Song is not at all who Gallimard thinks.



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Annabel Leventon ...
Shizuko Hoshi ...
Richard McMillan ...
Embassy Colleague
David Hemblen ...
Intelligence Officer #1
Damir Andrei ...
Intelligence Officer #2
Antony Parr ...
Intelligence Officer #3
Margaret Ma ...
Song's Maid
Tristram Jellinek ...
Defense Attorney
Philip McGough ...
Prosecution Attorney
David Neal ...


During the Cultural Revolution in China in the mid-1960s, a French diplomat falls in love with a singer in the Beijing Opera. Interwoven with allusions to the Puccini opera "Madama Butterfly", a story of love and betrayal unfolds. Written by Michael C. Berch <>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis

Plot Keywords:

china | opera | spy | betrayal | 1960s | See All (21) »


Drama | Romance

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for sexuality and a brief bloody sequence | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

1 October 1993 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

M. Baterflaj  »

Filming Locations:


Box Office


$1,499,795 (USA)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


Peter Weir passed on the chance to direct. See more »


The word accordion is misspelled "accordian" in the closing credits. See more »


Song Liling: Please come back. My audiences miss the white devil in their midst.
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User Reviews

A music, not a story
25 November 2011 | by (Greece) – See all my reviews

This is a more richly woven Naked Lunch to my mind, a study on the efforts to discern truth from the makings of fantasy. In terms of Japanese film, it is what Mizoguchi was trying to posit in his later films about cultivated images obscuring a tortured heart, and which fueled at the time a second idyll with Oriental culture.

The first was the time when Madame Butterfly was written, with Japanese perspectives for the first time pouring across Europe.

The film is patterned around this, the Madame Butterfly opera about a geisha falling madly in love with a Westerner who is unworthy of that love, and the violent repercussions on both ends of a growing obsession. And real life mirrored from this with sexuality inversed, the events of an actual case that may be the weirdest in world espionage.

Both are layered here, fiction and life. On one hand it is about the Westerner's efforts, recast here as a French diplomat in 60's Beijing, at first condescending, cynical but gradually admiring, to capture the heart of a strange exotic world. That world seduces him with the face of a Chinese opera singer, herself a Butterfly performing the opera when we first see her, exuding all those things the idealized image of the Orient is meant to: ancient mystery, scented allure, covert eroticism.

(of course we know that the Madame Butterfly opera was based on a story in turn based on recollections of the writer's wife from her visit in Japan. It is a purely Methodist dream of the Orient, itself a prosthetic hybrid, an illusion. There was never any inside truth in the adopted images, any truly Oriental heart to be captured)

From her end, we learn that she is manipulating that image from inside, presenting what he wishes to see to gain actual knowledge of Western machinations.

But of course, this being patterned after an opera, it is about the music, not the story. So all the lachrymose love stuff makes sense, that may seem overt and heavyhanded at first glance. The flowery visuals, arranged in decorative beauty. The complete artifice of a stagebound China, that only furthers the connection with a staged reality. The project was originally meant for Peter Weir, no doubt he would have envisioned a better density for this world, a more enveloping alienation from the encounter; but the material suits Cronenberg's prosthetic worldview just fine. More than fine.

The idea is that everything groomed to look beautitul should be revealed deceptive, illusionary. So he creates a natural copy of everything that should have rung true and lived, based on the idea that as an audience we are as open and eager to be seduced by images as the protagonist is.

It works just subtly enough to throw us for a loop as just another Oscar bait about love and political intrigue. It is not, with all the emotional outpour that we experience as the film perversed as the instruments of a cruel deception. With victims us who genuinely believed in it.

Of course what the man thinks he has learned from her was all lies, all because he failed to see truly; this is recast as a political comment with him feeding estimations about the Vietnam war to his superiors, all wrong. And a second political comment, again as pertaining to a Western dream; young leftist students rioting back in France in the name of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. We know how that panned out, what suffering was concealed in the idealized image broadcast abroad.

It ends with a purely operatic transformation that is Cronenberg's turf, set up on a stage before an audience. Full circle with another Butterfly performing a role, but this one funneling broken soul into the thing. Everything is questioned, identity, contact, even sex. The result elicits a shock that is real, it's quite wonderful to watch.

Overall it is near masterful stuff for me, about the power of images to seduce and break. I could see something like this come from Peter Greenaway, with the whole thing in quotation marks. But Cronenberg was daft or smart enough, I can't tell which, to make the maudlin and wooden stuff so unassuming it works deeper than Greenaway would allow.

So it's not really a conventional love story but only dealt with in those terms. The opera that he's watching around him. So a man falling in love with an idealized depiction of beauty, itself a cinematic essence, but that we have to deal with as viewers on our own. Do we open up to it only to be hurt when he is? Do we keep our distance and admire aesthetically?

1 of 3 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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