Butter on the Latch: Berlin Review

This unbearably pretentious, ultra-low-budget sort-of horror story is at least blessedly short.

Having acted three times in films by Joe Swanberg, multi-hyphenate Josephine Decker goes behind the camera for this psychological thriller set in an adult music camp.

Sex, female friendship, Balkan music and horror elements are mulched together in Butter on the Latch, half of a brace of films by director-writer-editor-actor-performance-artist Josephine Decker screening at the Berlinale’s Forum, alongside her Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.  An indigestible goulash of a film about a young woman who is either losing her mind (or not), or living out events from an old folk song (or not), this stridently pretentious low-budget effort has already found supporters, especially among devotees of low-budget director Joe Swanberg, with whom Decker has collaborated as an actor in three films. But most viewers, even fans of experimental cinema, will balk at Butter’s slightness, intentional amateurishness, and banality. Snatches of jaunty music and the occasional striking image -- when DoP Ashley Connor deigns to keep things in focus -- are not enough to redeem this.

It comes as no surprise that, according to the film’s press notes, the film was “completely improvised,” spun out from a five-page treatment. Now, of course in the right hands this approach can produce great results, but the filmmakers must to have some kind of clue about where the narrative is going and what the whole point is meant to be. It’s hard on a single viewing to imagine this was the case with Butter on the Latch, which feels held together by graphene, sticky tape and sheer directorial force of will.

There’s a plot of sorts. Sarah (play by musician-photographer-performance artist Sarah Small) is first met on an Brooklyn street getting a very upsetting phone call from someone named Pony, who’s never mentioned again, and then picking up some guy in a nightclub whom she sleeps with. A crash edit finds her next in the woods of Mendocino, Calif., there to attend Balkan Camp, an extended workshop program where adults learn how to play folk music from southeastern Europe. (This is a real event, run by the East European Folklife Center which Decker has made a short documentary about, so presumably the teachers seen here are basically playing themselves.) At camp, Sarah pals up with Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence), and the two talk about boyfriends, anal sex, what have you, like girlfriends do, which is actually one of the film’s more watchable scenes. Later, they get lost in the woods, and the same goes for the film too, which starts flirting with horror mannerisms without wanting to really commit. Sarah sings, quite nicely in fact, a Balkan-language song about a woman who gets dragons entwined in her hair, end up torching a forest (as well as no doubt giving her roots serious heat damage), a tale that might have a bearing on what follows.

Sarah begins a nervous courtship with a handsome, banjo-playing guy (Charlie Hewson, who’s appeared in Arthur and The Nanny Diaries and seems to be one of the few participants in the film who doesn’t describe himself as a performance artist). Their relationship seems to put some kind of strain on her relationship with Isolde, and Sarah starts having dreams or hallucinations, visualized sometimes as slow-motion dance sequences, eerie looking long landscape views, or split-second shots. In between all the weirdness, the characters attend lessons on Balkan drum rhythms or watch the professional musicians perform, sequences that are a lot more interesting than the main plot.

With her fitfully charming short Me The Terrible, Decker has shown she knows how to craft a conventional film. It’s clear that her blender-style editing technique and oblique approach to narrative, along with Connor’s blurry, randomly framed cinematography, are artistically motivated decisions which they have every right to make. Some of those decisions, if made with discretion and restraint, might have been quite effective. But slapped altogether like this, the film just looks a mess, apart from some of the rather pretty shots of banana slugs and redwoods. It doesn’t help that the characters, even accounting for how little developed they are, come across as entitled, self-absorbed brats, and that the very title is, on a first viewing, a complete enigma. At least it’s only 72 minutes long.