Liberated by low budgets and the experience of acting in three improv-based indie pics for DIY director Joe Swanberg, Josephine Decker has fashioned the kind of feature debut the film industry simply doesn’t support, but would do well to encourage: a visually poetic, virtually free-form groove in which emotion, rather than narrative, guides viewers through a young woman’s visit to a Balkan folk music camp. Its title repurposed from an evocative (one might even say, suggestive) song lyric, “Butter on the Latch” boldly eschews commercial considerations, confident that there are those broad-minded enough to go with it.
As Decker explained after the film premiered in the Berlin Film Festival’s experimentally inclined Forum section (an ideal venue for such work, given that auds attend without preconceptions of what the pics should be), working with Swanberg gave her “the space to not always be interesting.” Back home, most moviegoers have been conditioned to reject anything not directly in service of plot, and indeed, “Butter” challenged this critic’s patience on first viewing.
But there’s something deeper — and deeply original — going on in Decker’s film that demands either a second viewing or a willingness to push past easy dismissal (certainly by conventional standards, the film seems hopelessly amateurish). One would do well to think of it not as a mainstream offering, but rather the cinematic equivalent of a self-published short story collection, one that enlists performance artist Sarah Small to play a young woman navigating various relationships, sexual and otherwise.
We meet Sarah at an outre theater performance, after which she receives a terrified phone call from a friend who woke up in a stranger’s house. Shaken, Sarah has a minor freakout on her end of the phone, the image spiraling out of focus, as if trying to capture the panicky emotions emanating from her head. In the very next instant, Sarah awakens in what looks like a warehouse, lying naked beside a creepy dude. Is this a flashback? Or maybe her projection of the scene just described? Was she speaking to herself on the phone moments earlier? Did the date-rape scenario happen to her?
One shouldn’t expect answers from “Butter on the Latch,” which unfolds in an almost dreamlike space, where flash-frame hallucinations and other abstract images — such as an old lady dancing in a clearing — compete with the highly impressionistic footage. Though she has dabbled in documentary, Decker seems uninterested in capturing a strict record of events, collaborating with d.p. Ashley Connor (one-third of the pic’s tiny crew) to find a looser visual language here.
At times subjective, at others seemingly disinterested in the characters altogether, the camera appears to take on a mind of its own once Sarah arrives at the Balkan folk-music camp — never identified as such, though it feels like a welcoming enough place, tucked away in a Northern California rainforest and full of open-hearted oldsters singing and dancing. There, in this almost primordial environment, Sarah reunites with Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence), a longtime friend who could use some emotional support.
As it turns out, Sarah is herself far too unstable to do much supporting. In fact, she’s arguably the needier of the two friends, their mutual disorientation amusingly reflected in a vaguely “Blair Witch Project”-like sequence when they lose their way back to camp in the dark. Sarah’s attention wanders when she should be listening to Isolde, fixating on a handsome stranger whom she spots playing the banjo (Charlie Hewson, a romantic fixation as one-dimensionally uncomplicated as Small seems conflicted), and jealousy flares anytime she thinks the young man might be paying her friend more attention — with disastrous consequences, depending on how literally one chooses to interpret the ensuing scenes.
Narrative aberrations aside, “Butter on the Latch” manages to capture a distinctly female state of mind in a way few films have previously accomplished (pics such as “Repulsion” and “Black Swan” have tried, but end up falling back on male-imposed concepts of hysteria to explain seemingly irrational female behavior). Frankly, it’s a disorienting place for most audiences to find themselves — like being air-dropped into alien territory and forced to find one’s bearings without the benefit of traditional film language.
Decker is still too new at her craft for the film to be as intuitive as she intends. Most problematic, the improv-based dialogue withholds the exposition needed to make sense of what we’re seeing, while a highly elliptical editing style leaves us grasping for clues and context amid snatches of conversation. And yet, the experience can also be quite liberating, revealing an artist grasping for a new voice.