Roger Ebert and The American

In his review of Anton Corbijn’s The American, Roger Ebert makes the following statement:

“The entire drama of this film rests on two words, ‘Mr. Butterfly.’ We must be vigilant to realize that once, and only once, they are spoken by the wrong person. They cause the entire film and all of its relationships to rotate. I felt exaltation at this detail. It is so rare to see a film this carefully crafted, this patiently assembled like a weapon, that when the word comes it strikes like a clap of thunder. A lesser film would have underscored it with a shock chord, punctuated it with a sudden zoom, or cut to a shocked close up. The American is too cool to do that. Too Zen, if you will.”

I read Ebert’s review prior to watching The American and spent the duration of the film’s running time waiting for this subtle emotional/tonal shift to arrive and it never did. The protagonist Jack (George Clooney) is called “Mr. Butterfly” by two characters on three occasions. The first time by ice-queen assassin Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) after Jack plucks a butterfly from her shoulder during a dreamy picnic/weapons trade. The second time by Jack’s paramour, an improbably bubbly and beautiful prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) after noticing a butterfly tattoo on his back. The third time by Mathilde, as she drives out of a cafe parking lot.

For argument’s sake, we’ll label the incidents A, B, and C, and keep in mind that for Ebert’s statement to make any sense, he would have to be referring to incidents B or C.

In incident B, Clara splashes around quite joyously in a stream and calls Jack (standing on the shore) “Mr. Farfalla” This doesn’t have a lot of impact because she’s a) saying “Mr. Butterfly” in Italian and b) there’s no reaction shot from Jack, no immediate change in his behaviour (he continues walking toward the stream), nor any alteration of his character in subsequent scenes. He grows exceedingly suspicious of Clara throughout the rest of the film, but that’s because he’s already suspicious of everyone. This wasn’t the turning point for him as far as Clara is concerned.

In incident C, Mathilde calls Jack “Mr. Butterfly” in the parking lot of a restaurant where she and Jack meet to exchange a gun that Jack’s built. This could be what Ebert’s referring to – the idea that the people he’s grown to trust shouldn’t necessarily be trusted – but the film has already established that Mathilde’s an unsavoury character and Jack’s already shown a refusal to engage with her on any sort of emotional level. There is a change in Mathilde from incident A to C – she goes from being vaguely suspicious to overtly suspicious – but Ebert mentions “the wrong person” which means A or C have to exist in relation to B, Mathilde to Clara or Clara to Mathilde.

Which leaves us with two options: either Ebert puts a significant weight on Clara’s “Signor Farfalla,” which doesn’t work in the context of the scene or in the overall film, or Ebert is putting a significant weight on Mathilde’s “Mr. Butterfly,” which also doesn’t work since it’s, at most, redundant in terms of Mathilde’s character and Jack’s attitude towards her (or anyone around him).

There’s a third option: Ebert simply forgot Mathilde’s first “Mr. Butterfly,” which would give the scene in the parking lot a tremendous amount of impact. This seems a likely explanation, given that Ebert’s reviews can occasionally be hit-or-miss in terms of accuracy. He quotes the following dialogue in his review of the first Scream movie:

“Horror movies are always about some big-breasted blond who runs upstairs so the slasher can corner her,” says a character in Scream. “I hate it when characters are that stupid.”

Actual line of dialogue: “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer’s stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.”

The basic point remains the same, of course, but the quote is way off. There’s also his review of Not Another Teen Movie, which, when it first came out, featured Ebert repeatedly referring to the film asĀ Not Just Another Teen Movie (an error that’s since been corrected, but you can find evidence of it at the bottom of the second paragraph.)

I think his review of The American is similar: the basic point remains the same but the quote is way off. The film, as he says, is carefully crafted and assembled like a weapon, but there’s no point at which the name “Mr. Butterfly” strikes like a clap of thunder. When Clara says it? No. When Mathilde says it? Maybe. Probably not. If this moment happened as Ebert described, it was subtle enough to be subliminal, but he’s probably just remembering it wrong.

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