By Sidney Butler
Josephine Decker debuted two feature films earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival, leaving everyone referring to her success as a “Double-Decker.” Decker’s first film “Butter on the Latch” blurs the lines between mystical and sinister. Taking place in the northern California woods, Decker’s characters of Sarah (Sarah Small) and Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) leave their hectic lifestyle in New York City for a getaway to a Balkan Folk festival, letting the inner workings of the music and darkly fantastical wilderness overtake them.
The slow and languorous camerawork is hypnotizing and enthralling, just like the forest that surrounds the scenes themselves. Out of focus shots cover the screen and the audience is never quite sure what they are seeing or what is truly happening. This is all due to Decker’s free-spirited approach to filmmaking, letting her actors and cinematographer, Ashley Connor decide which direction to take the piece.
“[The camera work] was improvised,” Decker said. “We would set up the shot in a way that felt right, but then Ashley would move around with the actors and then decide what felt right in that particular moment. While they were improvising the dialogue, we have this way of shooting called “Ash-cam” which is where Ashley shoots and goes with the action.”
From the fluid movement of the camera to the sharp and jarring cuts that divide reality and fantasy, the film is like a disconcerting roller coaster ride of dark fantasy mixed with an anxious reality. The Mendocino woods offer a beautiful yet eerie backdrop for someone like Sarah who is slowly drifting into madness.
“The landscape was major with reasons I made ‘Butter on the Latch,’ because you’re out there in the woods and you can hear Balkan music floating through the trees and you just feel like you’re in another universe.”
“Butter on the Latch” is a film that is able to feel like an alternate universe by the way it winds in and out of scenes and events. As Sarah finds herself entrapped in the music and the lust of a handsome camper, she loses herself completely. The film plays with time and place in an experimental way, the structure of the piece plays out like music rather than a traditional narrative.
“I think the way I am trying to make movies is a little bit more like a symphony than a screenplay. I initially was trying to find out how to initiate a theme that comes back a few times but each time in a surprising way that is a little bit different and that throws you off and adjusts your expectations.”
Decker’s signature, it seems, is to make the unexpected present in her work. Taking from artists like Maria Abramovic and Lars Von Trier, she pushes the limits of filmmaking to explore a more radical approach to storytelling.
“I wanted to go past where I was going into that darker more alive place. I think that’s the job of being an artist — how do you as an artist push yourself to experience [and recreate] these situations that other people are generally trying to avoid.”
In the end, “Butter on the Latch” can be seen as a dark yet lively coming of age story. Sarah’s character participates in a rite of passage as she loses herself in the Balkan music and the freeing wilderness.
“I think there are passages traditionally people go through when they are trying to heal and mature.”
“Butter on the Latch” is not a typical film, and is not told in a typical way. Yet, Decker does not necessarily take the rules of filmmaking and throw them out of the window, she manipulates them and crafts them for her own benefit to tell a strangely unique story about the tortures of self-discovery.
Sidney Butler is a staff writer. Email her at email@example.com.