Unhealthy sexual relationships have been at the heart of many of David Cronenberg’s projects. Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) both feature alien diseases that are sexually transmitted, while the plots of The Brood (1979), Videodrome (1983), and Dead Ringers (1988) each revolve at least partially around destructively obsessive sexual relationships. (1986’s The Fly is somewhat of an anomaly in this respect, in that the fairly conventional courtship of its main characters has a loving foundation that is gradually corrupted by scientific mishaps). Given this pedigree, Cronenberg would seem an ideal choice to direct M. Butterfly (1993), an adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s celebrated stage play about the traumatically passionate relationship that a male French diplomat has with a Chinese opera star posing as a woman during the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately the way that the film handles its central relationship is unconvincing and rife with problems of execution.
The major problem with M. Butterfly is the casting of the leads. Jeremy Irons is solid enough as the diplomat (the French characters in the film are all played by British actors speaking their native tongue); as demonstrated in Dead Ringers, he knows how to play romantic desperation. But John Lone is horribly miscast as the transvestite opera singer. Lone is a capable performer, best known for playing the adult version of the titular character in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), but his physical features and his voice aren’t even remotely feminine, which makes it difficult to believe that Irons could be duped into believing that he’s having an affair with a woman. In fairness, this isn’t a Crying Game (1991) situation where the audience is meant to be shocked by the revelation of the opera singer’s gender – we learn very early on that the singer is actually a man - and part of what Cronenberg is doing here is provocatively suggesting that the diplomat is willfully deceiving himself about the nature of his relationship, constructing a fantasy with the real-world materials available to him.
Still, it doesn’t seem like Lone’s character would be an acceptable enough stand-in for the submissive, self-sacrificing Asian woman that Irons’ character desires. Intellectually, Irons’ reasons for deceiving himself add up, and are even fairly clearly spelled out in the film’s dialogue. He’s a western imperialist seeking to dominate an “exotic” Asian woman; he feels bored with his conventional marriage; he feels emasculated by his macho colleagues; etc. It’s certainly true that human sexuality is socially constructed, and that all of the above factors would contribute to the diplomat’s longing for a stereotypically submissive Asian woman, but there is also a visceral, visual component to sexual attraction that the film fails to account for. Hwang’s play is based on a true story, but it feels tremendously unconvincing onscreen, largely because it’s impossible to believe that Irons’ character would find Lone to be a suitable receptacle for his specific fetish. The film is an unfortunate waste of a compelling setting and provocative subject matter, and Cronenberg’s least artistically successful project since Fast Company (1979).
Though M. Butterfly is ultimately a failure, it is one of the more clear explorations of Cronenberg’s major recurring theme, as defined by Sam Adams in a recent article on TheDissolve : “the relationship between human desires and the structures we build to realize them.” That theme is pushed to its breaking point in Crash (1996), an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel about an underground cult of people who are sexually aroused by car crashes. Rather than attempt to make this absurd fetish appear believable, Cronenberg structures his film as a series of extreme sexual fantasies – or, depending on your perspective, nightmares – related to his characters’ peculiar obsessions. By removing basically any content that is unrelated to those fixations, Cronenberg has eliminated any obstacle to focusing on his most cherished theme, making Crash something of a Rosetta Stone for his body of work.
Though the characters in Crash spend virtually every scene of the film realizing their most perverse sexual fantasies, they never seem remotely fulfilled by their transgressions. It is made plain that the characters are not achieving orgasm during these encounters; a repeated mantra is “maybe the next one.” Though the film is in some ways a work of (or at least a commentary on) pornography, it is pervaded by a sense of melancholy. As with the William Burroughs stand-in in Naked Lunch (1991), the characters maintain a deadpan cool regardless of how surreal their surroundings are. These people need to push at the absolute fringes of sexuality to even become aroused, but are so dependent on their fetishistic hardware that they have lost the connection to humanity that might actually make their experiences fulfilling. Basically the characters are addicts, and Crash throws into relief how important the theme of addiction has been in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. The TV producer in Videodrome had his porn addiction, the scientist in The Fly was addicted to his experiments, the twins in Dead Ringers developed drug habits, the writer in Naked Lunch was addicted to both drugs and writing, the diplomat in M. Butterfly had his destructive relationship, etc. Crash takes its characters to the next logical step of addiction. Their unique obsession makes death and satisfaction seem almost indistinguishable.
Though Crash is in many ways the ultimate expression of Cronenberg’s recurring themes, it is far from his most entertaining or artistically rewarding film. While Cronenberg’s decision to structure the film as a series of increasingly bizarre sex scenes allows the viewer to focus almost exclusively on the director’s thematic obsessions (and is undeniably a bold artistic stance for a mainstream film), it ultimately dulls the film’s narrative possibilities. The characters start the film as extreme sex addicts and end it the same way; the only real progression is in the extremity of the sexual situations, reaching self-parody when one character humps another's vaginal-shaped leg wound. It is important to the film’s message to show that the characters have distanced themselves from emotional contact, but by removing all traces of recognizable everyday reality from his film Cronenberg limits the audience’s investment in his characters. Crash is another of Cronenberg’s technical marvels – the scenes involving car stunts are all impressive and regular cinematographer Peter Suschitzky gives the film an appropriately icy goth look – and it is fascinating as an under-the-microscope look at the director’s pet themes, but it’s also too unpleasantly one-note for its own good.
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