Directors discussing human capacity for sex and violence are a dime a dozen. For more than 50 years, David Cronenberg has dissected it — often quite literally, creating weapons made of human bone or shoving handguns into tremulous, vaginal stomach slits. Of course, such unpredictably invasive anatomical moments are just one part of Cronenberg’s aggressive tradition. Even in his less fantastical work, he rarely separates sex from violence, poking and prodding to seek potentially perilous similarities in the chemical reactions caused by those acts. In honor of Cronenberg’s films, and his 80th birthday, Midwest Film Journal presents a monthlong retrospective on his work: Ew, David!

There comes a time in many a filmmaker’s career when they seem to say to themselves: “I can do more than just that.”

Witness Steven Spielberg attempting to take a break from fantasy and science-fiction with The Color Purple. Or Alfred Hitchcock trying to prove his comedy chops in The Trouble with Harry. Or Mel Brooks trying the spoof-free Life Stinks.

One could argue David Cronenberg’s effort to break his own mold came when he followed up his string of ShiversRabidThe BroodScannersVideodromeThe Dead ZoneThe FlyDead Ringers with the adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. But given that film’s reliance on giant bugs – hallucinated or otherwise – let’s skip over that and get to his biggest out-of-genre leap, M. Butterfly.

No giant bugs. No exploding heads. No flesh-eating neighbors. The adaptation of a hit Broadway play, M. Butterfly is a romance of sorts, albeit a one-sided one. 

Jeremy Irons (replacing the stage’s John Lithgow) plays married stick-in-la-boue French diplomat René Gallimard, who becomes uncharacteristically smitten with an opera singer while doing government work in China.

You know, I know and anyone with eyes should know (except Gallimard) that Song Liling (John Lone) is a dude. Further, (semi-spoiler ahead) he turns out to be a spy collecting info from the gullible guy. 

This goes on for years. And years.

How, one might rightly ask, does a man not realize his long-term lover is a man? Wouldn’t there be … physical evidence of sorts?

In the hit play from which the film is based, that question – if not the answer – is raised early, directly confronting the natural cynicism an audience brings to this audacious concept. By addressing the huh? factor early, it pulls us in.

The film merely tells us what we are about to witness is inspired by a true story.

That it is. At least in outline. 

But playwright (and screenwriter) David Henry Hwang is more interested in our willingness to buy into the myths we create than with actual history. That works on stage, with abstract sets, short scenes blending into each other and with the opening set in prison. There, in the artificiality of a live theater, it’s easier for audiences to enter Gallimard’s mind and to understand how Liling manipulates his desires. Deftly deconstructing Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and the white-male fantasy it’s anchored in, playwright Hwang created a world where illusion was possible, and Gallimard talks to us directly. 

That helped two much more effective stage-to-screen adaptations, Amadeus and Equus. Like M. Butterfly, both featured direct address to the audience from a troubled main character. On screen, the adaptors of Amadeus and Equus both found ways to retain that intimacy; granted, Salieri’s is couched as a confession to a priest but it serves the same purpose.

By dispensing with that kind of exposed opening and running in the opposite direction of theatricality, Cronenberg’s film reduces the tale to conventional melodrama. And because the twist is built into the marketing and the notoriety of the play, there’s no Crying Game surpriseof  waiting for just when he is going to wise up.

Which he doesn’t. 

To its credit, the cinematography by Cronenberg stalwart Peter Suschitzky is lovely and the costumes by Denise Cronenberg hold the eye when the plotting doesn’t. But that’s hardly enough to make this a worthy watch.

No doubt knowing there wasn’t an audience for a meh adaptation with little chance of awards support, Warner Brothers didn’t give this one much of a push. And Cronenberg, after a three-year gap, moved on to Crash – not the inexplicable Oscar-winner Crash. The other Crash. The one with sex and auto accidents. A very different, but more Cronenberg-ian, romance.