M. Butterfly

I haven’t seen David Henry Hwang’s much-praised play, based on an implausible-but-true story, but it’s easy to see how the audience’s imaginative participation in the central premise could make it work. An accountant at the French embassy in Beijing in 1964 falls in love with the male diva who plays Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Peking Opera, thinking he’s a woman, and over the course of a lengthy affair gets coerced into spying for the Chinese government. The fundamental problems with David Cronenberg’s disastrous 1993 adaptation, written by Hwang himself, are twofold: the unsuitability of such a premise for film, where the actors and audience no longer share the same space, and the miscasting of Jeremy Irons as the accountant and John Lone as the diva. The bravura final sequence gives some indication of the movie that might have been. With Barbara Sukowa and Ian Richardson. R, 101 min. (JR)

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