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 as 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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10 Responses to Roger Ebert and The American

  1. Josh says:

    Thank you for this analysis. I read and re-read Ebert’s review and I agree with you that he’s probably finding a twist where there is none. Oddly, if there was a twist, I’d agree that this is a much better movie than it is.

  2. I realized another possible explanation for Ebert’s quote: he might be misattributing Mathilde’s first utterance of “Mr. Butterfly” to Clara. Visually, the scene with Mathilde at the stream is almost identical to the scene with Clara at the stream, so it makes sense that Ebert might, in retrospect, put Mathilde’s words in Clara’s mouth.

  3. Jahn Friederik says:

    Thanks for this post, this has really been bugging me!!
    I’ve watched the movie like 5 times trying to figure out the rotational butterfly 😛

    Still, it’s a great movie, and I think ebert was spot on with his review in other ways.

  4. Bhakti says:

    I gave this film 3.5 stars.
    I enjoyed watching the entire movie AND it kept my attention. However, I think Focus Features was remiss in calling it a “thriller”or even worse an “action triller”. By today’s standards this was more of a ‘meditation’ or ‘character study’, rather than any kind of modern action thriller. It’s old school thriller, like Hitchcock’s ROPE (actually ROPE has much more suspense and tension and practically no action, but you see my point). By today’s standard, I hardly think ROPE would be called a “thriller”. My point? I did find The American to be a wonderful character study/meditation–along the lines of IKIRU, yet not as brilliant, because IKIRU’s message was pure liberation, and THE AMERICAN had no universal message. My opinion.
    Now that you know my thoughts about THE AMERICAN, I will address the issue of your post (and I thank you for writing about this subject). I watched the movie and THEN read Ebert’s review. When I read what he said about someone calling Jack/Edward “Mr. Butterfly”, I said to myself–“Is he referring to Clare or to Mathilde?!” because there were TWO occassions when I thought it suspicious.
    Moreover, when Jack and Mathilde were in the parking lot of the coffee house where ‘the drop’ took place, my jaw dropped when Mathilde called Jack “Mr. Butterfly” because her tone was sarcastic, and TO ME it sounded as if she was telling him that he was being spied on by her and her people. As if she was letting him know that she knew Clare called him that. That was my immediate thought after she called him Mr. Butterfly in the parking lot. I thought she was being sarcastic and snide.
    However, I must admit that I am not completely sold on my theory. But I did have a visceral reaction when Mathilde called Jack Mr. Butterfly in the parkinglot.
    Even if my theory is correct, I STILL can’t make out how this created plot twists, etc, as Ebert infers.
    Regardless, I enjoyed this film and was glad to see Clooney stretch his acting chops by pulling in the reins a bit.

  5. LittleRedWhyVet says:

    I think Ebert is referring to Clara calling Jack Mr. Butterfly. Mathilde called Jack the name because of the specific interaction with the butterfly at the river. But when Clara calls him that, I immediately thought “uh-oh, how does she know that name? Is she working with Mathilde? It seems like too much of a coincidence for her to randomly call him that, she must have slipped. She said it so casually that she must have forgotten that he is not supposed to know that she knows that name. Both Mathilde and Clara must be bad.” So for me, it immediately created tension as a viewer, wondering for the rest of the film if Clara was going to turn out to betray Jack. I think it was a great way to keep the viewer sympathetic to Jack’s paranoia.

    Mathilde calling him that the second time with contempt in her voice, in my opinion, only serves as a device to give the viewer the obvious sign that Mathilde is indeed bad and that Jack’s life is in immediate danger.

    After thinking about it some more, though, I realized that Jack had a tattoo of a butterfly on his back. This would explain why Clara called him that. Still seems like too much of a coincidence though.

    THEN, I read that apparently, in the book, everyone calls Clooney’s character Mr. Butterfly because of his fascination with butterflies, which the movie alludes to but doesn’t develop satisfactorily. So in hindsight, perhaps the director wasn’t being deliberate about creating the tension by having Clara calling him that. Perhaps he was just trying to draw from the book in shaping Jack’s personality, which would make Ebert’s assumptions, and subsequent awe, ill founded.

    Still, I felt the same tension as Ebert whether it was intentional from the director or not. I think he’s definitely referring to Clara’s utterance of the name.

  6. JR Lowrey says:

    You nailed it. Well done. Ebert’s great, but he occasionally has his lapses.

    I would agree that the movie would have been emotionally better if Mathilde somehow name dropped “Mr. Butterfly” as an acknowledgement that Clara was on the take, but logically and intellectually, the movie worked just fine as was.

    A fine film.

  7. Stephen Avis says:

    Clara clearly calls Jack “Mr. Butterfly” as he leaves her room. Nothing ambiguous about it. There is no connection to Mathilde who calls him the name because of the picnic incident. Clara calls him Mr. Butterfly because she has seen the tattoo between his shoulder blades. Roger is sharp because I certainly was taken aback when Clara used the name. It added a delicious twist to my feelings about her. Great film; a photographic wonder and understated performances that are taught and intriguing.

  8. Dave says:

    I totally agree. You will never find someone who loved Roger Ebert’s writing more than me but he often missed key dialogue and misidentified plot points. It’s understandable I suppose when you’re watching 3 or 4 movies a day. So yes, Mr. Butterfly was not spoken by the wrong person, it was tying the impending danger back to the river scene when Clooney told Matilde that the butterflies were endangered.

  9. cosmosmarinerdu says:

    I think Steven Avis has it most right. That Roger didn’t notice that Jack had a tattoo on his back, so then Clara’s using it certainly would imply he was, as JR says, “on the take.” And with Dave I forgive Roger missing such a small thing while reviewing (it seems like) EVERY film that’s released. (I do miss Roger’s reviews. Don’t we all?)

    (Note: Clara’s played by the daughter of the woman who played Michael Corleone’s Sicilian first wife. I feel so old.)

    • I definitely miss Ebert’s reviews. I tended to agree with the guy (though when I disagreed with his opinion I REALLY disagreed). I joined his Ebert Club for $5 when it first came out, no questions asked.

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