As part of her research for Butterfly in Blue Jeans, writer Yang-May Ooi is exploring re-interpretations of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly story across various media and cultures. Here she reflects on the despairing abandoned woman trope of this tragic opera as it is re-imagined in the 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction, which recasts Butterfly as a femme fatale and vengeful “bunny boiler”…
Fatal Attraction was the movie that gave us the phrase “bunny boiler” – used to describe a vengeful, scorned woman who is prepared to get her own back by any means necessary.
Dan, played by Michael Douglas, has an affair with Alex, played by Glenn Close, one weekend while his wife and six year old daughter are away. To him, it is just a bit of fun, and he is soon back with his family planning a move from the city to the suburbs. For her, she longs for something more and sees in him the man she might have made a life with.
Over the course of the next few weeks, she tries to rekindle the affair, make him love her as she loves him, get his his attention – anything but to be left alone and abandoned. The harder she tries, the more he pulls away and soon, her desperation turned sinister…
One day, he goes out with his family and when they return, his wife discovers a pot boiling on the stove. Who has broken into the house? She cautiously approaches the bubbling pot… And when she lifts the lid, we see the family’s pet rabbit in the boiling water. We know – but she does not – that it is Alex who has done this desperate, violent, malicious act.
The influence of Madame Butterfly
Throughout the film, there are references to the opera Madame Butterfly. Dan and Alex listen to it while they have lunch the Sunday morning after their torrid night. It is her favourite opera and for a moment, Dan reveals his vulnerable tender character as he remembers seeing the opera as a boy with his father and pitying poor Butterfly. We see Alex watching him, thinking: this is a good man, he will not leave like Pinkerton leaves Butterfly, he will not deceive me as Pinkerton deceived her. And she let herself fall for him…
Music from the opera permeates many of the scenes – overtly when the characters listen to extracts and also interwoven into the incidental music and theme music. Alex wears white in most of the scenes, as Madame Butterfly does in the opera. Updating the story to a modern Western setting, the film gives her a violent, unstable edge that explains the potential for suicide that underpins the tragedy – as compared to the Japanese setting of the opera where Butterfly’s suicide is seen as part of the honour code of her culture (albeit exoticised for a Western audience). Interestingly, the original script had Alex killing herself but due to negative audience responses to that ending, the filmmakers changed it to the more conventional Hollywood ending that we all know – where the family unit triumphs, with both husband and wife together destroying the evil “other woman”.
The original ending is in the clip below – fast forward to 7:56 for Alex’s final act as the famous Madame Butterfly aria “One fine day” plays…
The Man as Victim
The primary point of view and moral centre of the film is Dan. His betrayal of his wife and marriage is offered to us as a trivial matter – after all, he is loyal to the family unit afterwards and his love for them is seen as a redemption. His using of Alex and lack of guilt are not relevant. His expectation that she should abort his child is seen as reasonable and her insistence on keeping it as another example of her controlling, manipulative wickedness. He only tells his wife about the affair and the child after the bunny boiling because Alex has forced his hand. The film casts him as the victim and the abandoned woman as the villain.
Fatal Attraction is a watchable thriller, saved from pulpy misogyny by Glenn Close’s nuanced performance of the material and despite its infuriating exculpation of the lying, cheating husband’s actions and the casting of him as victim.
Power and a woman scorned
For me, thinking about how I might re-imagine the Butterfly story in a modern setting and from the perspective of an East Asian woman, Fatal Attraction raises the question: if the original opera showed Butterfly as the victim, does it also do a disservice to women to make the Pinkerton character into the victim? In the opera, Butterfly turns her violence onto herself and in this film, she turns it outward onto the cause of her emotional pain. In either case, she is far from empowered and both portrayals reinforce the idea of women as subsuming their whole identity into the love of a man. I don’t want my Butterfly to be trapped by these two limited views of a woman scorned…
What do you think?
In a love triangle like the one in Fatal Attraction, who is the victim? Who has the power?
If you could make the director’s cut, how would you like to see the story end?
Yang-May Ooi is a writer and theatre-maker. She is currently developing the play Butterfly in Blue Jeans with actor Julie Cheung-Inhin. Her previous work includes an autobiographical solo theatre piece Bound Feet Blues – A Life Told in Shoes (Nov/ Dec 2015, Tristan Bates Theatre, London) and novels The Flame Tree and Mindgame. Www.TigerSpirit.co.uk
Bunny from Quotesgram
Poster from Standard Issue Magazine