We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Less epic than anecdote, the “true story” that “inspired” M. Butterfly is curious but not especially resonant: A minor French diplomat conducts an 18-year affair with a Chinese opera performer, who claims to bear him a son, without ever realizing that the woman is a man. This is the stuff of worldly snickers, but not for Canadian body-betrayal connoisseur David Cronenberg, who obviously found in David Henry Hwang’s script a mirror of his oft-pursued fascinations with twinning and transference, pregnancy and parasitism, and deeply suppressed homosexuality. The director approaches Hwang’s odd parable with deadly earnestness and a heroic, if conventional, camera: He makes this slight tale look like The Last Emperor.

As a play, M. Butterfly reportedly depended heavily on stagecraft, an approach that would seem to appeal to Cronenberg. He’s never before left Canada to make a film, even Naked Lunch, set in Morocco and the Interzone. Yet Butterfly is plumped with picturesque shots of Beijing and Paris, and the Cultural Revolution and May ’68 French student uprising are enlisted as dramatic backdrops. (The scene where Beijing Opera costumes are ritually burned by Red Guards will be repeated soon, when Farewell My Concubine opens.) The improbable lovers even picnic atop the Great Wall.

Such tourism is not the film’s foremost problem, though. Among its major landmarks, the most incongruous is Jeremy Irons, who’s much too imposing to portray the shy, bumbling René Gallimard, a minor accountant suddenly and unexpectedly elevated to vice consul in France’s Beijing Embassy—the better to smuggle government secrets to “his butterfly,” Song Liling (John Lone), who’s permitted his decadent cross-dressing lifestyle in exchange for a little espionage. Irons is more than game, but the transitions he’s required to make—from fidgety to rapt when he first sees Song Liling perform selections from Madama Butterfly, from awkward to assured after he’s promoted—are beyond finesse.

Irons has played the minor factotum before (notably in Skolimowski’s wonderful Moonlighting), but he’s no longer capable of it. He’s the cabinet member (of Damage) now, not the bureaucratic naif who never realizes that his always-clothed lover is a man and—intoxicated by his erotic success with his “Oriental” concubine—counsels the ambassador that the Vietnamese will inevitably yield to the West’s phallic power. “Deep down, [Asians are] attracted to us,” he confidently explains.

For the underdeveloped role of Gallimard’s wife, Cronenberg employs an actress best-known for her Fassbinder roles, Barbara Sukowa, and in the film’s final minutes it turns Fassbinderian in its confrontational camp: After being imprisoned for spying, Gallimard’s ultimate, horrible fate is to become a performance artist, painting his face in a crude approximation of Beijing Opera makeup as he delivers a monologue, all to the polite applause of his fellow inmates. Gallimard explains that he’s like the heroine of the Puccini opera: “The man I loved was not worthy.”

Such transference is as glib as Song Liling’s anti-imperialism and ironic feminism (“only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act”) and the script’s veiled commentaries on gay sex. Song Liling calls their relationship “the most forbidden of loves” (on the surface, this refers to its transracial nature) while Gallimard responds to his lover’s protestation that s/he has “a chest like a boy” by rhapsodizing, “Not like a boy, like a girl, a young innocent girl.” (Oh, OK, that’s better.)

This is eccentric stuff, but M. Butterfly is no freak show. Perhaps because he’s working from some one else’s script, Cronenberg makes the proceedings tasteful, picturesque, and a little bland; only the last two scenes spiral out of the stylishly lighted tableaux, and only the last one is truly lurid. Still, the film shares something with Naked Lunch and Dead Ringers: All attempt to unearth dark yet universal obsessions in sensibilities and circumstances too unusual to serve the purpose. It’s just that this one is so repressed it almost looks normal.

No one behaves all that badly in Bad Behaviour, a low-key comedy set in the gentrifying north London neighborhood of Kentish Town. Gerry McAllister (Stephen Rea) flirts with his personable young co-worker Sophie (Saira Todd); his wife Ellie (Sinead Cusack) gets drunk dancing to a salsa band and abandons the family car on Camden High Street; her friend, bitter divorcee Jess (Clare Higgins), has casual sex with her landlord, Howard Spink (Philip Jackson). Even Spink, the villain of the piece, is no bullet-spraying psychopath. His principal crime is sending the McAllisters a $200 consulting-fee bill for pointing out the cracks in the wall of the bathroom he used one day when he came over to pick up his son.

Both Irish-born, the McAllisters react differently to life in London. Ellie, who works part-time in a bookstore and takes care of the couple’s two sons, has vague hopes of moving to Dublin (though not back to Belfast). Gerry, a town-planner, identifies with the dispossessed (notably some “travellers” whose impromptu trailer park he’s trying to get legalized) and boils over at the “limey” Spink when the latter coos from his car phone, “I understand how you feel. My grandmother was Irish. I’m a Celt!” (The film might as well have finished its indictment of Spink with the scene in which he orders a Budweiser.)

Though Behaviour director Les Blair doesn’t attempt the dramatic tone-swings of Mike Leigh, both are attracted to similar upper-lower-middle-class milieus, and both require their actors to improvise from basic scenarios. (Among the preparations for the film, Blair had both Rea and Cusack decorate a room in character.) The film’s performers are up to the challenge. Best known for The Crying Game, Rea has worked in the improvisational mode in Leigh’s Four Days in July and Life Is Sweet, and he and Cusack both have extensive live-theater experience. Notably when pursuing a subplot involving identical-twin building contractors Roy and Ray Nunn (both played by Phil Daniels), the film’s humor is cartoonish, but the performances are assured and believable.

Limited in scope and sometimes parochial in humor, Behaviour starts slow and may mystify non-Anglophiles with its incessant tea-drinking and references to strange locales like Milton Keynes (it’s a new town that Gerry, planner and resident of funky Kentish Town, presumably despises). Still, much of this will resonate with Washingtonians: Usually easygoing Gerry is flattered and tempted by Sophie’s admiration; a frustrated writer, Ellie aspires to more than housewifery and a part-time job; high- strung Jess thinks she can straighten out her life in a weekend at a Buddhist monastery in Hampstead; Spink’s wife, fascinated by Ray (or is it Roy?), tells him of a friend who’s doing “very nurturing work” with twins.

Blair and his cast wrap the various plot-threads together slowly and gently, never tempting the possibility of a shattering confrontation. Ellie and Sophie end up next to each other on the dance floor, neither knowing who the other is, while Gerry waits at home watching the kids and admiringly reading his wife’s writing. The McAllisters stay together, neither sublimely happy nor prepared to risk their comfortable domesticity to the plot developments of a more eventful movie. Theirs is indeed a small world, but not such a bad one.