Early on in this film a discussion arises about the threadbare plot of this opera involving an American sailor and the sad, lonely, and beautiful Japanese woman who pledges to him her unmerited love. As the participants, a European male and Asian female, slowly concede that Madame Butterfly smacks of imperialist degradation, an analogy is made that I have to quote in all its preposterousness:
It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man .... Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde cheerleader fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He marries her and then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture, and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then when she learns her husband has remarried, she kills herself. Now I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner, you find her beautiful ... the point is, it's the music not the story.
This analogy might work today, or even twenty years ago, but it certainly could not apply to 1964 Beijing, nor would it mean a drachma to a French diplomat, who would probably think a cheerleader was a firebrand rabble-rouser. The anachronism is so egregious that one might generously consider its inclusion as a hint: the person troating the phrase is as fraudulent and misinforming as the statement itself, and the person accepting this argumentation is an utter fool. Which would make a great deal of sense as the speaker is Madame Song (John Lone) and the listener a French diplomat by the name of René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons).
We meet Gallimard as he shuffles papers for the French Embassy in his capacity as its bookkeeper; we meet his cold if fetching wife Jeanne (Barbara Sukowa); and then we glimpse his nighttime activities, which at the beginning of the film entail taking in an opera – but not in that order. Gallimard attends Madame Butterfly somewhat out of character. "I've got one or two people around here thinking I'm profoundly cultured," he confesses to Frau Baden, an older, well-connected German woman, as good an excuse as any for his ingenuousness. When she first floats into our purview, Madame Butterfly remains at a distance; it is therefore incumbent upon Irons to convey the restrained yet undeniable madness of love at first sight. At what we now term the after-party, Gallimard buttonholes the diva and begins the awkward advances of an overeager admirer. "I've never seen a more convincing performance," he croaks. To which Madame Song asks whether he meant her performance as a Japanese woman, and then launches into the political agenda punctuated by the cheerleader reference. The East-West dynamic, surely a horse killed a thousand times over, informs the rest of their conversation. They part, he reluctantly, she at just the preordained moment, with Madame Song's recommendation that Gallimard attend the Beijing Opera to hear the real product. The first act closes with his return home to Jeanne, and Gallimard gets more than a little discomfited when he sees his wife fanning herself, looking in a mirror, and singing the aria to the opera that is the soundtrack to his obsession.
What happens next may only make sense to plain minds if one knows the true story on which M. Butterfly is based – a source that has been ignored by many reviewers. Ignored, I should say, for one uniform reason: Madame Song is clearly not who she claims to be; that is, to even the untrained eye she is far too masculine in voice and appearance to sustain any sort of duplicity. Even without foreknowledge of the events, this distinction strikes the viewer but not the protagonist, which is one of the great conventions of drama. Gallimard and Song begin what would be deemed a usual affair, express in turn the usual reservations and passions, but in closed quarters do not pursue the usual pursuits. The love scenes – not the right word, the scenes in which the characters moan, fondle one another, and moan again – are shot fully clothed. Is this because Gallimard truly respects Song's shame or based on some other conviction? Whatever the case, Gallimard is rewarded for his ostensible purity in an extraordinary way: his Embassy colleagues, whose expenses he has been questioning since he arrived, are discovered by the imperious Ambassador Toulon (Ian Richardson). Toulon does not like backslapping junkets, and of all the charges one can hurl at Gallimard, he can never be accused of either humor or frivolity. Irons's demeanor and gesticulation will remind the attentive moviegoer of this masterpiece, released only a year before, as will the suspicion of other levers at work. The levers come in the form of a second androgynous Chinese character just as, curiously enough, Gallimard is appointed head of Embassy intelligence with the assignment of monitoring a certain "conflict in Vietnam" with the Americans.
The gender issues in M. Butterfly provide catnip to modern theorists who debase everything and everyone and end up just demolishing their own credibility – yet the point is quite another. The difference in gender, a crude and obvious conceit, could easily apply to any relationship in which the appearance of love gave way to heartbreak. “What I loved was the lie," says Gallimard, "the perfect lie," a sentiment that could describe any romantic misfortune. Gallimard beds another woman and, upon seeing her sprawled in waiting, quips, "you look exactly as I imagined you would under your clothes," leading to an ironic confession to Song. In another magnificent scene, we see Song working in a quarry as a megaphone condemns all "artists, writers, and intellectuals" to manual labor so that they may know "the flinty soil of China's revolutionary future." But the film's oddest conceit has to do with our allegedly French characters. Both Toulon and Gallimard not only possess perfectly clipped and refined British speech, they also react to emotion and empire with the same morbid indifference. In fact, it is empire that stirs Gallimard more greatly when he oversteps his expertise about Southeast Asian politics and seeks the Ambassador's approbation. Casting actors more prone to the vicissitudes of human feeling might have led a greater number of critics to buy into the whole charade, although we may again be generous and see this ploy as intentional. It is fair to state, however, that the very ghastly last scene, while dramatically correct, should not have taken place physically even if, mentally, the change occurred ages ago. Perhaps that is why as Song is being led away by army officers she tells Gallimard that, “whatever happens, the days I spent with you were the only days I truly existed." If only we knew more about the days before that.