A DIRECTOR’S OBSESSION
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
Last year, when David Cronenberg saw The Crying Game, he watched with professional interest. He already knew what to look for. “Some jerk,” says the Canadian director, had already tipped him off to the movie’s celebrated secret, spoiling the surprise scene where the hero’s date strips off her clothes and presents graphic evidence that she is a he. At the time, Cronenberg was working on his own gender-bending movie, M. Butterfly, which opens the Festival of Festivals this week in Toronto. It is based on David Henry Hwang’s 1988 Broadway play, inspired by a strange but true story: a
French diplomat conducts a two-decade romance with a Chinese opera singer before realizing that his lover is a man. Unlike The Crying Game, M. Butterfly lets its audience in on the secret from the start. It is a very different kind of movie. But, as Cronenberg told Maclean’s in a recent interview, The Crying Game made him jealous—not the movie itself, which left him unenthused, but the transvestite: “She has no Adam’s apple.” Chinese-American actor John Lone, who plays the cross-dressed diva in M. Butterfly, does have an Adam’s apple. And it proved to be a pain in the neck. “It was agony shooting with him,” recalls Cronenberg, “because we had to be so careful about the light, the hair, the throat.” As it turns out, Lone’s female impersonation is more than convincing. It is a shrewd, se-
ductive portrait of duplicity. Jeremy Irons, meanwhile, outdoes himself as the diplomat with another brave, brilliant, shocking performance—on a par with his acclaimed portrayal of twin gynecologists in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). And for its 50-year-old director, M. Butterfly marks another triumph in the time-lapse metamorphosis of a remarkable career: a film that refines his obsession with sexual mutation, and takes it to a new level.
Of the two dozen Canadian directors unveiling new features at the recent Montreal World Film Festival (Aug. 26 to Sept. 6) and at the Toronto festival (Sept. 9 to 18), Cronenberg is the most accomplished. He is operating on a larger scale than the rest, having made M. Butterfly with a Hollywood budget of $20 million. But he remains stubbornly based in Toronto. He is a loyal cultural citizen with an aversion to the Hollywood esthetic. And as a mild-mannered family man whose art seethes with unspeakable impulses, Cronenberg incarnates a sublimely Canadian paradox: pathology lurking in the peaceable kingdom.
He is not alone. Canadian movies are supposed to be dull and sexless. But this season’s crop, ranging from Denys Arcand’s Love and Human Remains to John Greyson’s Zero Patience, may dispel that myth once and for all. One after the other, Canadian film-makers are offering evidence of a violent imagination—and of an obsessive fascination with sexual extremes (page 42).
In his own movies, Cronenberg has always treated the flesh as a kind of metaphys-
ical Play-Doh. He is famous for inventing creatures: the writhing parasites that erupt from the body in Shivers, the insect flesh that grows like a cancer out of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, the organic typewriters that secrete orgasmic juices in Naked Lunch. Even amid the austere drama of Dead Ringers, the director could not resist tossing in an outrageous dream sequence of a woman aborting a monstrous fetus.
With M. Butterfly, he finally seems to have made a movie without effects, without creatures. Cronenberg, however, disagrees. “John is the creature,” he insists, referring to the meticulous illusion created by Lone’s drag act. Still, there are no creepy-crawlies, nothing to offend the squeamish. M. Butterfly is the most palatable film of Cronenberg’s career, even though the suggestion makes him wince. “Ooooh, I hope not,” he says. “I guess after you’ve made a bunch of movies, one of them has to be the most palatable.”
M. Butterfly marks a departure for the director in other ways. Filmed in China, Budapest, Paris and Toronto, it is the first movie that he has shot on location outside Canada. And the sheer presence of landscape, architecture and costume lends the images an opulence that goes beyond anything in his previous films. In fact, after Cronenberg sent a half-hour of footage to Hollywood to be cut into a trailer, he received a call from an astonished David Geffen, the billionaire mogul who financed M. Butterfly. ‘The trailer made it look like a David Lean picture,” says Cronenberg. “They used every big shot there was. They made it look like an epic. Geffen phoned and said, ‘This is incredible. But is this stuff in the movie?’ I said, ‘Yeah, of course it’s in the movie.’ ” Cronenberg, who insists on making the final cut of his movies, enjoys a rare autonomy in Hollywood. Marvelling at the director’s independence,
Lone recalls that “Geffen and Warner Bros, [the distributor] left us complete| ly alone. In the past, I’ve never done I films where there was no executive in8 volved.” The actor, who has worked for | some legendary film-makers, including £ Bernardo Bertolucci, told Maclean’s that Cronenberg “is the strongest director I’ve worked with. He’s truly secure and fearless.”
Irons, too, has high praise for him.
“I’m interested in exploring the edges of behavior,” he said in a phone interview last week from Barcelona, where he is shooting a new film. “I like spin— and David puts a good spin on anything he does. He surprises me.” Adds Irons: “One of the things about working with David is he makes it a very happy experience. He is confident enough in what he’s doing to come relatively open-minded to any particular scene and allow it to germinate, and be created by the people involved as we’re doing it. That is a huge luxury.”
That serenity on the set seems palpa-
ble in the final product. Despite its exotic location shots, M. Butterfly unfolds as intimate drama. And when Cronenberg edits, he cuts to the bone, lending an elliptical quality to the narrative. His images, like photographs in a developing tray, keep coming into focus long after the final credits have rolled.
Wearing khaki shorts and a black polo shirt, Cronenberg sits in his Toronto office, a Spartan space above a storefront. Generic white furniture. White walls, bare but for a poster of Naked Lunch. Nothing to give him away. The director refuses to let journalists into his home. He says he does not want his career to encroach on his family—on his 15-year marriage to Carolyn (his second wife), a homemaker, or on his children, aged 21,13 and 8.
As he lists the ages, he flinches. “Even just telling you that makes me uncomfortable,” he says. “I’m not obsessive about it. It’s just privacy. If you came into my house, you would have to describe it. That’s the whole point. And I wouldn’t want you to. We both know the process. Whatever happens during the interview, whatever my wife would say if she came in, would have significance in the article. Whereas in real life it would just be another moment.” For the record, he has two houses, one in Toronto and one an hour’s drive away in the country. He has a passion for cars. He owns a black Audi sedan and a red Ferrari, but also collects vintage racing cars. Once he spun a Ferrari into a concrete wall, but emerged unhurt. His hobby is something that “my wife could certainly do without,” he says. But it goes back a long way. “My mother said I used to have a red tricycle that I was never off.” Those who have seen Cronenberg’s films are sometimes surprised to meet him. They expect a weirdo with a tortured past. In fact, he is charming and articulate, and insists that he had a “very wonderful childhood”— great teachers and loving parents (now both deceased). His father, Milton, was the Toronto Telegram's stamp columnist for 30 years. His mother, Esther, was a pianist who accompanied choirs and dancers. Cronenberg, who began writing “morbid short stories” in high school, says that his interest in the macabre came naturally. “I can’t imagine how anyone can’t have it, once you realize what the rules of life are.”
A top student, Cronenberg was torn between science and literature. After a year of studying both, he settled on literature, graduating from the University of Toronto with a BA in 1967. In university, he tried being a novelist, but felt overshadowed by his role models, William S. Burroughs and Vladmir Nabokov. Then he discovered film-making, in which he felt free to invent his own vocabulary.
After making several experimental films, Cronenberg built a cult following in the early 1970s by writing and directing low-budget horror movies, including Shivers, Rabid, The Brood and Videodrome. In 1975, Robert Fulford lambasted Shivers in a now-infamous story in Saturday Night magazine titled “You should
know how bad this film is, after all you paid for it.” The $180,000 movie, subsidized by public funds, more than paid back its investors with earnings of $5 million. It took a little longer for its director to earn some respect.
With the release of The Fly in 1986, Cronenberg’s unique brand of biological horror infected the mainstream. The movie
made more than $100 million and remains his biggest hit. Straying from the horror genre, he won resounding acclaim for Dead Ringers (1988), featuring a tour-de-force performance by Irons as drug-addicted twin gynecologists who both commit suicide. Critics also raved about Naked Lunch (1991), his surreal adaptation of the Burroughs
novel, but the movie died at the box office.
Although Cronenberg has had only one big commercial hit, he is in demand. He has turned down offers to direct a number of movies that became blockbusters, including Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance— and, more recently, The Firm. “I get lots of scripts from mainstream Hollywood,” says Cronenberg, “and I’m flattered. But they’re just not the films I want to do. I drive my agent crazy because I turn down everything. But I’m not in financial difficulty. I love the money because of the freedom it represents, but I’m not greedy.” Cronenberg also passed on an offer to direct Interview with the Vampire, the long-awaited adaptation of the Anne Rice best-seller. Instead, Neil Jordan, who made The Crying Game, will direct Interview—with Tom Cruise as his star. Cronenberg had found the book uninspiring. “I’d 5 been told it was a modern rethinking of vampirism,” he says. “But when I started to read it, I didn’t find it very modern. I found it very gothic and very old-fashioned and very florid.”
The story of M. Butterfly, however, immediately intrigued him. Hwang’s play is loosely based on the stranger-than-fiction saga of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot (chronicled in an upcoming book titled Liaison, by Joyce Wadler). “It’s one of those little stories like Dead Ringers,” says Cronenberg. “What? Twin gynecologists found dead? What? Chinese opera singer/spy loves French diplomat and turns out to be a man after 20 years?”
The director saw the play and found it “very cartoon-like, too didactic and too obvious—attitudes fighting each other.” But Hwang, who co-wrote the screenplay with Cronenberg, was amenable to changes. Hwang’s original theme, says the director, “is that we see the East as female and submissive and passive, which makes us feel strong and dominant. And I’m saying it’s more complex. That’s why I hate politics—because people shed all the subtleties to make a point.” Adds Cronenberg: “The play is more overtly political than the movie. And it’s conceivable someone might accuse me of depoliticizing it.”
M. Butterfly is the first Cronenberg film that is, above all, a love story. But Cronenberg stresses that it is both a romance and “a subversion of romantic love—you have the emotion, but you also have the tools to examine it, to dig under it and around it and through it.” The relationship between René (Irons) and Song (Lone) is built on layers of unspoken complicity. “I saw this not as the deception of one person by another,” explains Cronenberg, “but the deception of two people by themselves.”
On some level, M. Butterfly is a story of re pressed homosexual passion, like Dead Ringers. But in both films, Cronenberg seems
intent on transcending gender. ‘It’s not a matter of gay or straight,” he says. “Sexuality, for humans, is an invention. One of the lines in the play and in the movie that I love is, ‘Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.’ What does that mean? It’s not just that men impose their idea of female sexuality on women. There’s a strange collaboration to
create a male image and a female image that somehow works for both, and it’s constantly being adjusted. Why? Because there’s no absolute sexuality any more.”
Before casting Lone, Cronenberg auditioned transsexuals and transvestites and had trouble finding the right balance. He needed an actor who could pass for a woman
but later in the story play a decidedly masculine man. “It was two tricks I had to do, not one,” says the director. In The Crying Game, he adds, aside from the shot of the transvestite’s genitals, “she’s a woman all the way through the movie—which is why, I suppose, it was such a nonthreatening film for a lot of middle-class North Americans who would have normally been put off by a homosexual love story.”
Cronenberg has made a career out of threatening the values of middleclass North America. Yet, in his own way, he has become a kind of Canadian institution. He has achieved a strange sort of respectability. He is a director who has dealt with the Hollywood devil without selling his soul. And his body of work seems to have a kind of biological integrity: even the props from his movies, including the Mugwump creatures from Naked Lunch and the surgical instruments from Dead Ringers, have been enshrined in a travelling international exhibition opening this week at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Will respect blunt Cronenberg’s edge? He claims not. “I guess I’m the kind of person who always feels he’s on the verge of being arrested,” he says. “I think I’m constantly flirting with danger in what I do.” And, for a director who has driven a racing car into a concrete wall, there is still nothing quite so dangerous as a strange idea. □