By Don Simpson | November 14, 2014
Director: Josephine Decker
Writer: Josephine Decker
Starring: Sarah Small, Isolde Chae-Lawrence, Charlie Hewson, Stephan Goldbach
How many directors in the history of cinema have premiered not one but two feature-length films at a major international film festival? Okay, now let’s narrow that scope down to female directors. Well, until Berlinale 2014, the answer was most likely very close to zero. Enter writer-director Josephine Decker, who has made one of the most impressive one-two punches in the history of cinema, fatefully premiering both Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch at Berlinale 2014.
While I have often fallen prey to the critical cliche of referring to films as “visually poetic,” Decker’s films are pure, unadulterated poetry that luxuriate in the ethereal and the mythical, yet ground themselves in the orgasmically organic elements of nature. Both of her films tell fairly simple stories in visually and emotionally complex ways; more importantly, these are films that even the most female-centric male director could never even dream of making. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch are two of the most primal examples of the feminine aesthetic — better yet, the feminine consciousness. Oddly enough, they are not what one would expect from a “feminine” vantage point, but that is where the word “primal” comes in. While there have been several (though not nearly enough) feminine and feminist films in the history of cinema, Decker takes these qualities to a much more primordial level. Decker gets directly to the deep and dirty emotional roots of what it means to be female. Rather than making “girlie” or “girl power” films, Decker’s films are gloriously gritty and unnervingly honest, and certainly not “girlie.”
Eventually perfected in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Butter on the Latch features sublimely impressionistic lensing (courtesy of cinematographer Ashley Connor) that creates a fantastical mise-en-scène in which nightmares and libidinous desires coexist. Basically, Butter on the Latch is kind of a modern hipster version of Dirty Dancing on a micro-budget — and with very little dancing — shot as a verbosely impressionistic fantasy tale. Butter on the Latch is a film that luxuriates itself in the sublime lyricism of primal rhythms and gypsy folklore; abiding by a unerringly hypnotic pulse, the psychological framework of Butter on the Latch skillfully relegates the viewer into a near hallucinatory trance, reflecting the woozy, sleepless unease of the two protagonists.
For Sarah (Sarah Small) and Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence), this Balkan camp is an escape from the threat of masculine aggression. Relishing in a foreboding sense of unease, Butter on the Latch continuously teeters on the cusp of becoming a horror film. Playing with sexual rivalries and psychological desires, Decker paints a haunting and unnerving narrative that often meanders to the cusp of surrealism.
To be honest, there are incredibly few people brave and audacious enough to make films like Butter on the Latch. With Butter on the Latch, Decker captures every inherent cinematic quality — visually, audibly and narratively. There is a natural breath and rhythm, as is Butter on the Latch is a living, breathing organism. This is the type of filmmaking that needs to be applauded and rewarded. Decker should not be a singular voice; films like Butter on the Latch should not be a scarce minority, these are the types of stories that were intended to be told cinematically.