“Because she sat on Pinocchio’s head”
I’m going to run with this quote from director Josephine Decker: “I think an ending is much more exciting if even I don’t know what it ‘means’.” For all intents and purposes she’s giving permission for me to make of her fiction narrative feature debut Butter on the Latch whatever I want. What’s real? What isn’t? That’s up to my own personal understanding of her lead character Sarah (Sarah Small) and what occurs to her during this nightmarish descent inside herself. Honestly, isn’t that what all cinema should be like? Art is inherently a subjective form of experience, what it means to one can be completely different from another and neither is better or worse because of it. Decker has given us a piece of performance art, put it in our hands, and said, “This is now yours.”
There’s beauty to this idea that transcends its content completely. Just look at the first real line of dialogue from Sarah saying, “I loved it” to a friend whose performance she just witnessed that responds with, “Well now I can finally sleep.” It’s an innocuous exchange that really gets to the heart of Decker’s thesis. If the two are being honest it shows the power of validation via the enjoyment of others and if they’re being facetious it proves our ego and sense of completion goes beyond what any outsider could ever say. The art itself exists on two planes—that of the maker and that of the viewer. It can be cathartic, damning, confusing, clear as day, or merely a thing to avoid with shallow excuses covering our inability to let ourselves absorb the unknown.
Subjectivity only goes so far, though. You still need due diligence to at least try and see where the artist was coming from when creating the collaborative work you seen. There’s purpose to setting Sarah’s journey at the East European Folklife Center during its Balkan Music and Dance Workshop in Mendocino, CA. It’s necessary to accept the story’s inspiration from the Balkan folk song “Zhenish Me Mamo” about a dragon who falls for a woman before wrapping himself in her hair and carrying her away while the forest burns behind them. These are facts the actors and filmmakers needed to set as a sort of rubric before Decker yelled “Action” and the cameras began rolling. All the dialogue was then improvised, each action caught and edited together into the terrifying, fractured mind onscreen as she saw fit.
From that point on it becomes a series of images and sounds our minds experience. No longer a folktale, Butter on the Latch becomes a shared experience filtered through the lens of cinematographer Ashley Connor, the brain of Decker at the helm, and now we in the audience bringing our own pasts, emotions, and preconceptions with us. Is it about a woman sacrificing a part of herself to be with a man? Is it about how that relationship envelops her so the connections she’s already made break down into nothing? Is it love literally ripping her apart at the seams, emptying her heart and soul into this unknown forest full of benevolent and malicious spirits ready to inhabit whatever allows them in? Why has Sarah even left the big city to visit there in the first place?
Maybe she hasn’t. My interpretation doesn’t go that esoteric, but it’s hard not to see so much of what happens as the fabrication of a scared and fearful mind. After all, why do we watch Sarah get violently distraught during a phone call—one with her friend Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) talking about how she’s awoken in this horrible place—only to witness that same experience from the other perspective happening to Sarah? Where’s Isolde? Does she even exist? And when we finally do meet her at the campsite with a firm embrace, who’s to say she isn’t simply a manifestation of Sarah’s mind? The way in which Decker begins to abstractly jump cut through time does nothing to counter this lack of stability and soon I was certain Sarah and Isolde were simply two halves of a whole.
The former’s the impulsive, adventurous lover while the latter’s the quiet, introspective soul in need of repair. At first they both want each other, comradery, and a sense of calm. Isolde yearns to arrive fresh and new, a woman not coming out of a bad relationship on the rebound but one ready carry on for herself without distraction. Sarah conversely lets lust and spontaneity bring Steph (Charlie Hewson) into their lives while also pushing Isolde to the edge of a cliff with only chaos at the bottom. And by the time this brooding, atmospheric journey reaches its end one must wonder who the dragon truly is. Isolde and Steph always find a way to stay where they are when Sarah seeks to leave. Sarah’s the one caught wanting more and soon she has them both in her grip.
Butter on the Latch proves as confounding as it is beautiful. It’s as disjointed and jarring as it is a cohesive whole when looking down at the full work from above. Connor’s floating eye alternately casts our view in shallow focus, absolute blur, or off-putting crops with that which we’re supposed to look at getting sliced off the edge. There’s a palpable sense of danger from the distress in Sarah’s voice at the start, the fear quivering through her topless body running out of a foreign place, and the disquieting claustrophobic trees bearing down just when she believes she’s free. It’s a difficult film made more so depending on where your head is while watching and one that begs for subsequent viewings to rework your hypothesis and experience something wholly new each time.