Monday, April 12, 2021

Bernard Natan | Le Ménage moderne du Madame Butterfly

queering up the opera


by Douglas Messerli

Bernard Natan (writer; based on the play by David Belasco and the opera by Giacomo Puccini with libretto libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa; and director) Le Ménage moderne du Madame Butterfly / 1920

Madame Butterfly, in this amazingly odd film from 1920, Le Ménage moderne du Madame Butterfly—lonely and tired of waiting for her lying and philandering husband Pinkerton (this Butterfly has no child)—has developed feelings for her maid Suzuki (here called Soussaki) with whom she has developed a lesbian relationship, not only gesturally expressed as we might have imagined of a 1920s film, but in this case, quite literally shown to us through a pornographic presentation of the two making love, completely naked, with Soussaki licking Butterfly’s vulva.

     Given this film’s pornographic intent, we might imagine a  series of rather washed-out frames with a hand-held jittering camera. But this film, credited generally to Romanian Jewish director Bernard Natan, is well-lit and quite sophisticatedly edited as we cut to the harbor of Nagasaki which reveals the return of Pinkerton’s ship, before the director cuts further to reveal quite crafted scenes of Nagasaki street life and returning us to Madame Butterfly’s mountain home, at which Pinkerton has just arrived with no one there to greet him, his wife obviously still involved with her lovemaking with Soussaki.

     After the handsome Pinkerton rings a small hand-gong for someone to greet him, the servant-boy Pink-hop (played by Nathan) hurries out and, as penance evidently for his inattentiveness,  begins unbuttoning Pinkerton’s jacket, the Captain smiling with surprised joy at his attentions.

     Undoing Pinkerton’s white sailor pants, he pulls out his cock and begins to suck it into erection. Pinkerton pulls him around, Pink-hop lifting his robe, and presenting his ass for the Captain to fuck him, which he quickly proceeds to do. Clearly, the sailor feels a great sense of relief and regeneration from the act as the intertitles announce “L’infidèle est enfin revenu...” (“The infidel is finally back.”)    

      Pinkerton finally asks to see his wife, to tell her evidently that he has since married an American woman.

      Despite his long absence and the sad news he bears, Butterfly is still highly attracted to him, and quickly begins a long embrace and kiss, as Soussaki begins to unbutton his pants, the two of  them pulling him down onto the tatami mat, where he performs cunnilingus on Butterfly as Soussaki sucks him off. 

      In the next scene we see him fucking Butterfly while Soussaki keeps his penis in position, Pink-hop masturbating and visually cumming on screen as he watches the sexual act.

   At this point, the film version I was watching, from the Bruce Farrahday Collection available on The Internet Archive through Vimeo, ends. Perhaps there is a second part, however, since the Wikipedia entry describes a continuation of their sexual activities, suggesting that Pinkerton goes on to engage in oral, anal, and vaginal sex with Soussaki before they are joined by US consul Sharpless, who along with Pink-hop engage in an orgy of sexual intercourse with the three others. Later Pink-hop also fellates Pinkerton and Sharpless, the film ending with Pinkerton waving to the audience.

     Bernard Natan acted in at least one other pornographic film prior to this one, and between 1920 and 1927, after emigrating to France the year of this film, Natan produced and directed at least 20 further porn films, many times appearing in them. A number of the films included homosexual and bisexual oral and anal intercourse actions performed by Natan.

     Le Ménage moderne du Madame Butterfly, however, has the distinction of being one of the very first of films, particularly of such high quality, depicting lesbianism, gay sex, and bisexuality all in one work.

     This film and Natan’s other contributions to the genre, however, were far from the first pornographic films produced. The first known example seems to have been made in 1908, with about 2000 hardcore films, about 600 prior to 1960, screened by 1970. Commentators guess that about 10 percent of these mostly “stag films” contained some homosexual activity, from a simple hand on the shoulder, thigh, or hip during hardcore anal or oral sex to more complex LGBT references , but most were presented in the context of heterosexual normality, accordingly rendering them into essentially bisexual acts.

      Not only are scholars impressed with the high quality of the lighting and camera movements of this work, but the costumes and sets are relatively lavish. The fact that Natan, moreover, even felt willing to risk the inclusion of homosexual activity suggests that he recognized that here was an audience interested in such cinema. It’s even more startling that Natan produced, wrote, directed, and performed in such hardcore films given the fact that only nine years after making Madame Butterfly he would become the owner of Pathé, the largest mainstream film studio in France.

     Except for a few examples such as this remarkable film, I have basically steered away from pornographic movies, although that is increasingly becoming more difficult to do given the blurring of lines between the two aspects of LGBTQ filmmaking and the increasing quality and narrative sophistication of gay and lesbian porno films. The few examples I have included in the My Queer Cinema volumes point to the increasing overlap of what once were thought to be oppositional genres, which given the increasing openness of sexual expression have begun to blend. Of course, at one time all of the thousands of films I speak of in these volumes might have been perceived as pornographic by the heterosexual hegemony.

     Arguably, Natan and his crew had more fun even than the Marx Brothers in queering up serious opera.       

Los Angeles, April 12, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (April 2021).  


  1. So much better than than unbearable Puccini opera!

  2. Actually I love Puccini as well. Just heard a radio broadcast of La Boehme yesterday. So PREEETY. And the last MET production of Madame Butterfly was truly great.