It was nothing less than a song that gave birth to Josephine Decker’s debut feature, Butter on the Latch, a film already imbued with the sweet essence of future fame and recognition. Its innate relation to a very distinct kind of music poses the film as a dream-like mythological creature of its own while Ashley Connor’s haptic but conceptually precise lens reveals female nature as something more than human. What started as a documentary made in collaboration with her fellow performance artist Sarah Small, was later transformed into two separate beings: the four-minute observational short Party in the Balkans – of California and the feature film that nonetheless documents that same chronotope, a Balkan music festival in the woods of Mendocino, California.
Butter on the Latch presents Sarah (Sarah Small) and Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) with little background story of their (beautifully intimate) friendship, as they traverse the dense Californian woodlands, dance in circles, and play the drums to the Balkan rhythms. A retreat from society and past relationships, their weekend seems complete when a charming suitor Steph (Charlie Hewson) cunningly sweeps Sarah off her feet, causing tensions and, of course, jealousy. Haunted by a Bulgarian folklore song that narrates the story of a beautiful young woman abducted by a dragon to become his wife, Sarah begins to see tangible parallels between the world of desire and the world of foreign-language myth.
More a coming-of-womanhood than a coming-of-age story, Butter on the Latch pays close attention to its protagonists in a persistently observational way, with curiosity and adoration. Capturing minutes of unbroken conversation, the film glides through boyfriend trouble, the attractive masseuse and what his touch was like, to discussing sexual advances and drunken nights. By framing dialogues that are so quotidian, Decker explicates the charm of banality, appealing to an intimate knowledge that we acquire for the characters’ personal lives, yet without knowing their bigger picture. Using extreme close ups, the camera denies all distance between Sarah and Isolde, binding them together in such tightly packed, often blurred frames that gradually amount to an intimate cinematic grammar of their own.
“A dragon loves me and he’ll take me
Every evening he’ll come to see me
And this evening he’ll come too”
Sarah whispers this free-flowing translation of a polyphonic female-choir folk song ‘Zhenish me, Mamo’ / ‘Mene me, Mamo, Zmey Luybi’ (Mother, a Dragon Loves me) as a night’s lullaby to Isolde, and soon after, her impeccable Bulgarian colours the lyrics as the melody drags in a painful ode: a maiden is destined to become a dragon’s bride. It is a distinctive moment in the narrative, which confirms both women’s mutual care and intimacy, given the task of falling asleep together is portrayed as a sincere slumber conversations, a goodnight caress, or in this case, a lullaby. The camera alternates between close-ups of both their faces, juxtaposing them on the other side of a campfire, the flickering lights and cracking supplementing the fairy-tale mode of speech. Enveloped in the story’s aura, Isolde’s resting face and gently closed eyes keeps the camera static while Sarah’s vocals pierce the air with each octave. The only sign of time passing here, is, it seems, the song.
Dragons are a meeting point of world mythologies, usually defined as an enlarged, masculine version of a serpent, paired with wings and/or magical powers. It is a curious fact, however, that the transformation from the snake as a cunning creature (Biblical par excellence) or world-nurturing in the ancient cosmology of Asian and African cultures, as an exclusively feminine creature, through a gender swap, to acquire other dangerous and magical properties. As studies of symbolism go, there is no uniform decision on how to interpret the dragon symbol, yet its fiery nature, temperament, and allure form it as one of the most sustainable tokens of strength in the magical animal kingdom. The motif of a young girl desired by a dragon has been present in Bulgarian folklore since early years BC, in the oldest Slavic myths and songs, the oral tradition is kept alive by ethnographers and anthropologists, and to our luck, Josephine Decker.
In legends, the dragon usually appears in disguise, it is either anthropomorphic as possessing human traits or full human form, while its symbolic function marks a threshold: allegorically addressing sexual maturation. While the myths treat the dragon wedding as a symbolic death and loss of virginity, Butter on the Latch attends to threads of further importance. By zooming its lens on the nuts and bolts of a friendship put to the test, Decker unearths the frugal core of womanhood, her protagonist overthrowing the dragon by becoming it instead.
“You look so much happier”, this is the first line Sarah addresses Isolde with at their reunion, in the beginning of the film. The first time we see them together, the camera is loosely fixed at a distance, capturing their joyous embrace from behind in a hazy, almost indiscernible blur where their intertwined figures meld into one. ‘Shaky’ is too conventional a word to describe the camerawork of Butter on the Latch, it is rather discomforting and provocative. Somewhat unpleasant, yet it seems to always be catching its breath in running after the protagonist, careful not to lose close sight of them, their elbows, hairlines, or ankles. In a whirl of angles and close ups, the camera refuses to zoom and pan, mimicking a shallow breath of a predator pace. While the film’s plot advances avoiding a straight narrative structure, cutting to dream images, flashbacks, or fast-forward moments, the animated camera becomes another allegory for a lurking presence, be it dragon, be it adolescence, both are equally curious and come at once, violently.
Similarly, the advent of Steph, the handsome stranger, is sceptically discarded by Sarah, yet his face keeps popping up in the rear of the frame, coming in and out of focus with a group of singers and performers. In a party, on a walk, he is omnipresent as the attraction builds up to the point of rupture. If we rearrange the narrative of the film so it follows linearly, many details of Sarah and Isolde’s separation stand out, compensated by the slow-burning passion between Sarah and Steph. However, the make out sequence towards the end of the film proves to be both narratively and symbolically potent to tell an inverted folklore story.
Foregrounding this, an indicative switch occurs when Sarah, previously comfortable in her black t-shirt and leggings, one day picks a dress from a vintage stand in the camp, and attention, the dress is white and lacey. Choosing a garment with a stylistic difference here marks a threshold and suggests a gender-performative switch. That is not to say that women cannot make up their minds and dress up without linking this act to fetishisation and the male gaze, yet this acquisition occurs foregrounding an important narrative moment: Sarah and Steph’s lovers walk. Substituting black attire for white suggests a tonal shift in Sarah’s openness, while symbolically it also delineates her rite of passage, in a metaphorical sense, her bridal status. The question floats in the air: does Sara want to be objectified?
Without explicitly addressing this issue, the film pays more attention to the couple’s gestural dynamics, paralleling with camera movements both their playful wrestle and their soft caresses. After Steph leads her over a fallen tree over the river, crossing a threshold together to their future, he brings her to a desolate part of the forest, its swampy green heart that both shelters and isolates them. Close-ups follow one another with rapid cuts, shoulders, locked thighs, hands scratching skin, clothes falling off. We are promised a sensual sex scene, yet the swiftly changing camera angles effect in a dizzy spell: from above, then below, cut to the side, tilts, horizontal is exchanged for a vertical shot, until the bodies are cut off at the very edge of the frame, blurred beyond recognition. Is this the dragon taking his bride?
All of a sudden, the shot cuts to a countryside sunset (maybe a memory?), then a tracking shot of someone running, alternating its bright colours with dark swamp erotics, until violence prevails, as Steph forces Sarah deeper into the water. Her swollen red lips share the same tint as his neck, scarred by Sarah’s nails, while both their bodies glisten in pale whites. The assault is conveyed by such details, ultimately trading its stark representation for disrupted images and lack of sound, yet it echoes more prominently. In the visual dissonance, it remains ambiguous who has harmed whom and we cannot help but root for the woman, rather than the dragon.
As a cross-cultural phenomenon, the annual Balkan Camp inspired Decker to tell the story of a friendship that can also be read as a hook-up, a break up, last but not least as an allegory of ancient mythology. The film is scarcely narrative-friendly, yet it advances with a brave step, with rapid cuts which frame long takes of a sliding camera that attends to nature and women’s hair with equal measure and pace. A tangible link to reality in her approach to explore dreams and imagination as not entirely separate, the veil over reality that seems to be the same one that’s made of flesh and bones. At the same time, her mindful approach in filming on location results in nature-sensitive film-making, pairing this with her climate change-related performance pieces. The Balkan context transported to the American wilderness enriches the feeling of being lost in a forest, ambivalently exciting and terrifying, as well as being lost in words, singing in a language you don’t know but utterly enjoy. Butter on the Latch employs its disruptive grammar yet it produces more than just an unsettling feeling – engaging in mythology and local tradition, a submergence into pre-rational times where the cosmos was female.
by Savina Petkova
Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian London-based freelance critic. In her spare time, she is a PhD candidate with a project on animal metamorphoses in contemporary European films. She lives from one film festival to the other, always on the hunt for animality, otherness, and visceral filmmaking. Savina admires bold story-telling as much as feeling-telling and defines her approach to criticism as sharp and ethically challenging. She is a regular MUBI Notebook contributor and writes for Electric Ghost Magazine, photogenie, and Girls On Tops. You can find her on Twitter @SavinaPetkova
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