Giving Birth to a Butterfly, the feature-length debut from director/co-writer Theodore Schaefer, opens with a middle-aged woman laying out two seemingly identical christening gowns, preparing them for their eventual sale online. The woman, Diana (Annie Parisse), discusses with her teenage daughter how her childhood imaginary friend would always wear a wedding dress. When asked why, Diana responds, “She said she was going to marry the world to speak to animals.” Yes, we are firmly in the world of art-house pretensions, where every character speaks in slow, hushed tones, making poetic observations about the their lot in life, and where dissolves separate each scene, giving us more time to contemplate the supposed wisdom being shared. Pairs — and, more generally, duality — play a major role in Giving Birth to a Butterfly, symbolizing a life that could have been, and perhaps one that never was.
Diana is stuck in a marriage to a selfish man-child (Paul Sparks) who constantly belittles her for not supporting his dream of opening a restaurant. His current position as part-time employee of a fast food restaurant, as well as his insistence on wearing a chef’s coat at all times, implies Diana’s lack of faith is not entirely unfounded. After having her life savings stolen as a result of an online fraud, Diana hits the road with her son’s pregnant girlfriend, Marlene (Gus Birney), in an effort to find the perpetrators. What unspools is a surreal journey in which the final destination involves two identical women both named Nina (Judith Roberts) who offer Diana another chance at happiness — that is, if she is brave enough to take it. Or, you know, brave enough to abandon her family and two kids. Perspective is everything, a thematic sticking point that Giving Birth to a Butterfly takes to heart.
What does it mean to exist in the world? Do the black shadows of an object cast by sunlight truly represent the object in question? Is there not beauty to be found in that desolation? Or have we only convinced ourselves of such a fallacy? Schaefer and co-writer Patrick Lawler have a lot on their minds in a way that recalls a pompous college freshman discovering the works of the great poets and philosophers for the first time, desperate to share their “enlightenment” with anyone who will listen. At one point, Gus states the following to Diana while they sit in a parking lot: “I saw this painting once, in New York. It was ornate and beautiful, but damaged, because it was just hanging there. It had lost its original life. Just dead. Beautiful, and dead.” As Gus is speaking, the camera pans to just outside the car, where a man drops a crate of oranges and a black cat chases after one, before slowly panning back to the conversation. Classic cat and a crate of oranges situation, I guess? In other words, everything here feels too obvious, too calculated, and that extends to the film is visual qualities, shot in gorgeous super-16mm, rounded corners adorning the frame, an emphasis on soft lighting that renders the proceedings practically ethereal, but distinctly too affected. An audience for Giving Birth to a Butterfly surely exists, and it’s certainly not a terrible film; it ultimately feels like something Schaefer, like so many filmmakers before him, simply had to get out of his system. Let’s hope he’s here exorcised his worst film-school indulgences; he clearly has the talent to produce increasing returns.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 3.