Josephine Decker’s Menacing Balkan Noir Film Butter on the Latch Opens This Week
Filmmaker Josephine Decker is also an accomplished accordionist, and a member of all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra. She credits the first time she saw a show by Raya Brass Band – the explosive Balkan brass jamband – as a life-changing experience. So it’s no surprise that experience would springboard what would ultimately become her first feature film, the deliciously creepy Butter on the Latch, which opens at the IFP Center, 30 John St. in Dumbo (on a double feature with her second full-length horror film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely) on Nov 14, when it will also be out on VOD.
Reduced to most basic terms, Butter on the Latch contemplates how men disrupt or fracture relationships between women (although women do the same thing to men – talk to your buddy at the bar, if you can find him on a night when he’s not off with his girlfriend). The disruptions and fractures in this film come suddenly and unexpectedly, even if the progression toward those cataclysmic events makes perfect sense as the narrative unfolds. Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence are pure dynamite in contrasting roles as students at Balkan camp, a retreat in what at first seems like an idyllic northern California woodland setting where bemused expats from Eastern Europe teach the eerie harmonies and befuddling rhythms of their native folk music to an eager cast of American kids.
On face value, Balkan camp seems like the funnest place in the world, where half the population is half in the bag by lunchtime, and where getting laid seems like part of the curriculum. Although Decker’s version maxes out the dread of its deep-woods milieu, it owes less to the Blair Witch films than to David Lynch (much of its iconography borrows heavily from both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), with a fond nod to Bergman’s Persona. The woman-to-woman dialogue couldn’t have been written any better, or more spot-on, than Sarah and Isolde (who each use their real first names in the film) improvise here. Their sometimes winking, sometimes feral, sometimes tender intimacy captures both the spontaneity and snark that Lou Reed was shooting for with the girls in the Velvet Underground’s The Gift, but couldn’t quite nail.
Ashley Connor’s cinematography careens in and out of focus, which is jarring at first, until it’s obvious that this story is being told from the point of view of a woman who literally can’t see straight. Complicating the picture is that Isolde relies on Sarah for stability, a misjudgment with disturbing consequences. One particular scene, the two staggering into the woods with what’s left of a bottle of wine as the sun goes down and then out, is as chilling as it is funny – and it’s absolutely hilarious.
Further complicating matters is the appearance of Steph (Charlie Hewson), a hunky guitarist that one of the duo can’t resist. A cat-and-mouse game with interchanging roles heightens the suspense, their interaction interspersed among what seem to be actual unstaged moments from music class or performances which help illustrate what the serious (i.e. not alcohol or sex-related) side of Balkan camp is all about. As cruel and cynical as it is surreal, Butter on the Latch is a riveting debut that solidly establishes Decker as an individual voice in 21st century noir cinema.
The soundtrack is sensationally good and appropriately haunting, with contributions by ensembles led by Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni along with Small’s own otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel and others. It’s a playlist that deserves to exist as a stand-alone album: it could convert as wide an audience to Balkan music as the initial Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares albums did twenty-odd years ago.