Producer-writer-director-editor Josephine Decker’s debut feature Butter on the Latch is simultaneously vague and direct in its intent. Decker mixes styles from shallow focus and extreme close-ups, to wide shots and deep-focus photography; from an inert camera to one that anxiously shifts in small stumbles, motivated not by the movements within the frame but by some sort of outside extra-diegetic nervous tension. The surface haphazardness of the style is belied by the precision of the editing, the specific splices to other characters and mysterious imagery not out of place in a David Lynch-like vortex of malaise. In other words, the film evinces a genuinely distinctive new voice in cinema, one worth getting excited about especially when that voice is female and loosely using the horror genre (more for its visceral effects of dread and unease than any on-screen carnage) to observe the dissolution of boundaries — of identity, dream and reality, and the simultaneous safety and barbed danger of female friendship.
Butter on the Latch feels like a sister film to Sophia Takal’s Green, which also weaves dreams and reality, and an alarming soundscape amidst a robustly verdant landscape to keenly observe the forming of a love triangle and the sprouting of jealousy. However, unlike Takal, Decker is more oblique in her approach to jealousy, and quite fittingly for a film that refuses to choose one formal strategy, her images stack up against each other to create an often beguiling, perplexing, and mysterious document.
Sarah (Sarah Small) goes to visit her friend Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) who is at a Balkan song-and-dance camp up in Mendocino, Calif. Legends and fairy tales are part of the backdrop: Sarah reads a story about dragons who entwine themselves in a woman’s hair and carry her off. Isolde’s name is of course associated with one half of the star-crossed lovers of Tristan and Isolde. And the forest camp grounds are full of dance, drums, and the singing of old Balkan folk songs. Though never woven into the narrative as anything but citations, these nods to fables and magical worlds help create a sense of a subterranean brewing otherworldiness, the possibility of reality and some sort of “otherness” becoming hopelessly entangled. As Sarah has violent dreams that appear to be hyper-real, she becomes increasingly unable to separate dreams from reality, in the process confusing ownership of a piece of personal history/event: whether something happened to her or Isolde.
an utterly original vision contained in each.
In the midst of all of this surreality, there is a scene that is as swift and acute an elucidation of petty jealousy between friends as cinema has offered. Steph (Charlie Hewson) is a cute banjo from the camp. Sarah develops a crush and clearly delights in spending time with him. In a two-shot, they sit around at lunch making ridiculous faces at each other, their heads getting closer and closer in a “will they/won’t they” wave of tension that is dissipated with a sudden cut to a different shot. Then, later that day, we see Steph and Isolde play-fighting with each other as Sarah watches them, alone on the front porch of the cabin. Isolde has already told Sarah that she does not find this banjoist attractive, and Sarah clearly basked in his attention throughout the day. But the sight of her friend hanging out and having fun with the boy she likes is uncomfortable, registering as a quick and tense facial hardening brought on by the prodding turbulence caused by that frustrating borderline of jealousy that is simultaneously justified and not. It only lasts a few seconds, but in that brief moment, Decker distills an emotion that epics and fables have been written about.
Both Butter on the Latch and Decker’s follow-up, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, open in New York this weekend after playing in tandem earlier this year at the Berlinale festival. While it may be too early to start thinking of Decker as a fully formed auteur, her equally fascinating sophomore feature suggests a furthering of themes and stylistic traits she explored in her debut. The loose camerawork is the same and the tone is even dreamier, the elliptical editing once again establishing permeable boundaries between dreams and reality. And there’s another love triangle between a daughter (Sophie Traub), father (Robert Longstreet) — although it’s questionable if he really is her father — and a secretive man who comes to work on their ranch for the summer (Joe Swanberg). Mild & Lovely is both a quieter and more violent film than Butter, but Decker shows more of a sense of humor, even staging a couple of shots from the point-of-view of an escaped cow. And it’s a bit of a revelation to watch that mumblecore stalwart Swanberg completely stripped of any smugness in what turns out to be the kind of a muted and nuanced performance one might not have expected from him in his previous acting and directing efforts. Any suspicions you may have in seeing two films by this up-and-coming filmmaker coming out in the same weekend are swept away by the utterly original vision contained in each one of them. Here’s hoping we have plenty more to look forward to from Josephine Decker in the near future.