‘Butterfly’ subtext in ‘Fatal Attraction’ still can’t be ignored

A man has a casual affair with a woman and then dumps her. The woman, now with child, longs for his return but is coldly rebuffed. Humiliated and left with nothing to live for, she kills herself with a sharp blade to the throat.

The story of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” is a tragedy written in florid, grandiose letters. Change the setting from imperial Japan to 1980s New York, throw in some designer kitchen cutlery, and you get “Fatal Attraction,” Adrian Lyne’s Oscar-nominated tale of an adulterous fling gone horribly wrong.

“Butterfly” is currently running at Los Angeles Opera, through Dec. 9. This fall also marks the 25th anniversary of “Fatal Attraction,” which was released in 1987 and forever changed the gender dynamics of the one-night stand.


James Dearden’s screenplay never tries to hide its operatic influences. “Fatal Attraction” features two crucial scenes set to Puccini’s music (or three, if you count the movie’s original ending -- more on that later). Revisiting the film more than two decades on, it’s easier to pick out some of the less obvious operatic references that the filmmakers incorporated in their rich rabbit soup.

The subtext will not be ignored. Is it a coincidence that Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) first locks eyes with Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) at a Japanese-themed business party? Alex has a vague foreignness about her -- as the critic J. Hoberman once put it, she is not only “the other woman” but “the Other, Woman.” In much the same way that Japan was seen in the ‘80s as the cultural “other” to the U.S., Alex represents something strange, distant and inscrutably “Japanese.”

Alex’s apartment in the Meatpacking District is decorated in monochromatic white. Her wardrobe consists almost entirely of white clothes -- including the iconic one-piece she wears during the movie’s bloody finale. White also plays a crucial role in “Butterfly”: Cio-Cio San demands at one point a bridal dress of “pure white.” When she cuts her throat, stage directions call for her to wear a white veil.

Real-estate transactions figure prominently in both stories. “Butterfly” begins with Lt. B.F. Pinkerton inspecting a new house. In the movie, Dan and his wife, Beth (Anne Archer), are house hunting in upstate New York. Their “perfect” home, as Beth puts it, is the thematic inverse of the one in “Butterfly”: in the opera, Cio-Cio San is the protector of the house, keeping lonely vigil after Pinkerton abandons her; in the movie, the scorned woman is always outside the home, a hostile force attempting to infiltrate and invade.

If you listen carefully to the movie, you can hear Maurice Jarre’s synthesizer score sampling from the Puccini opera, in one instance putting an unsteady warble in the six-note refrain from the aria “Un Bel Di Vedremo.” Jarre also quotes from “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” -- a strange choice until you recall that the end of Act One of “Butterfly” finds Cio-Cio San marveling at the star-filled sky, remarking that “every spark twinkles and shines.”

“Fatal Attraction” contains two outright nods to “Butterfly” -- when Dan plays the aria “Con Onor Muore,” prompting Alex to enact the scene by slicing her wrists. Later, when Dan rejects her “peace-offering” tickets to see “Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera, Alex revisits the recording alone in her apartment, flicking the lamplight on and off in a catatonic stupor.

The movie’s original ending, which was famously scrapped after poor test screenings, features yet another “Butterfly” reference. Alex uses a knife with Dan’s fingerprints to cut her throat -- in the style of Cio-Cio San -- thereby framing him for her death. As Alex draws the blade slowly across her neck, the Puccini score crescendos and the movie fades to black.

Close has stated in interviews that she preferred the original ending and that Alex is “self-destructive and tragic,” not a raving psychopath. For Alex, suicide is the only option. Or, as Cio-Cio San sings, “Death with honor is better than life with dishonor.”


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