Plot of the Movie "M. Butterfly"

by Liz Frazier
David Henry Hwang wrote both the stage and film versions of

David Henry Hwang wrote both the stage and film versions of "M. Butterfly."

Mark Mainz/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

"M. Butterfly" is a 1993 film directed by David Cronenberg. It is based on a stage play by David Henry Hwang, which is in turn inspired by the Giacomo Puccini opera "Madama Butterfly." The convoluted lineage of this film is appropriate as it matches the complexity of the plot: at its heart, "M. Butterfly" is a story of stereotypes, deception and willful blindness.

Setting and Character

The story's narrative revolves around Rene Gallimard, a French accountant working out of his nation's embassy in 1960s China. The world that the Paris native finds himself in is exotic and confusing, not only because of China's cultural difference from the Western world. The nation itself is also in a turbulent transformation into a massive communist state.

Act I

As "M. Butterfly" is based on a play, it retains its basic thee-act plot structure. The film begins with Gallimard attending a diplomatic evening social. While at the party, he meets Song Liling, a Chinese opera singer performing parts of the opera "Madama Butterfly." Gallimard is immediately infatuated with Song, though she is at first distant. Song invites the diplomat to a traditional Beijing theater performance. As Gallimard's feelings for the young diva deepen, he becomes more distant from his wife. Eventually the two commence a sexual relationship, though because of her modesty, Song refuses to let Rene see her naked. In the meantime, Gallimard encounters trouble at work. As the embassy's accountant, he is responsible for approving budgets and expenses for various departments. However, he constantly bumps heads with the intelligence department. At one point Renee fears that the enemies he's made at work will cost him his job. He is pleasantly surprised, however, to discover that the ambassador is promoting him to oversee the intelligence division.

Act II

As time passes, Rene becomes content with both his work and his relationship with Song. She loves him unconditionally and even submits to him as her master. Rene believes he has found the perfect woman and calls her his "Butterfly." However, at this point the audience learns that Song is a Chinese agent sent to seduce and influence Gallimard. Meanwhile Rene continues climbing the ladder of success at work and exerts more influence over France's policy in Asia. At one point, he insists to the French Ambassador that the American military will easily succeed in Vietnam because the people there will simply follow the most powerful force in the region (a false Oriental stereotype of docility cultivated by Song). Though Rene is still in love with Song, at one point he is fed up with her modesty and insists that he see her naked. Song submits at first but, just as Rene is about to undress her, she blurts out that she is pregnant. Rene is overjoyed and distracted by the news. Song insists that she must return to her village to bear the child (in actuality she goes to procure a Chinese baby boy with blond hair). While Rene waits for Song, his life begins to disintegrate. His predictions on Vietnam turn out to be catastrophically mistaken, causing him to lose his job at the embassy. Eventually, Song returns to him momentarily with their son, but she is soon taken away by communist forces to a work camp (artists and performers have been declared enemies of the state). Heartbroken, Rene is sent back to Paris. Back at home, Rene lives in a perpetual state of despair over the loss of Song and his son. Suddenly, Song reappears at his flat, and the couple seem joyously reunited.


The action of the film moves forward several years and finds Rene working in Paris as a diplomatic courier. It has now been more than 20 years since Rene first met Song. In the meantime, he has begun leaking secret information from his courier pouches to the Chinese in the hope that he might one day see his son, who is still held in China. While running one of his routes, he is arrested by domestic intelligence officials for spying. At his trial, Gallimard discovers that Song was not only a Chinese agent, but that she was man dressed as a woman the whole time. The key question surrounding the trial is if it was truly possible for Rene to have loved and lived with Song for all this time without realizing her true gender. Rene is eventually found guilty, and he and Song are transported away from the courthouse together. During the ride, Song demands that Rene admit that he still loves Song even though the true nature of their relationship has been revealed. Rene insists, however, that he is in love with the illusion of his Butterfly and that nothing else can compare. Eventually, Gallimard kills himself in prison out of despair.

About the Author

Liz Frazier has been producing Web content, instructional articles and trivia for websites such as and since 2008. Her writing interests lie primarily in the areas of politics (specifically public administration and elections), the military, education and forced migration. Frazier has a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from California State University, Northridge.

Photo Credits

  • Mark Mainz/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images