queering up the opera
WARNING: CONTAINS ADULT IMAGES, ADULTS ONLY. IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY NUDITY AND GRAPHIC DEPTICTION OF SEXUAL ACTS, PLEASE DO NOT PROCEED. CLOSED FOR UNDERAGE INDIVIDUALS.
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.
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.
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.
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).