Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch (2013) follows Sarah (Sarah Small) and Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence), two old friends who reunite by chance at a Balkan music festival in the woods of Mendocino, California. The easy flow of their friendship seems intractable, until Steph (Charlie Hewson), a new male camper, arrives. As Sarah’s attraction to him becomes apparent, her bond with Isolde complicates and unravels. What seems like a love triangle with two women competing for the same man becomes an incredibly rich exploration of the psychological subtleties of female relating. Decker’s choice to be formally disorienting in her approach (combining elliptical editing, dream sequences, and improvised dialogue with non-actors) allows for an exploration of female dynamics that goes beyond simply what women do and say, and delves deeper into what women feel. Through this, Decker’s film raises (and visualizes) the labour inherent in the female filmic conversation and in female friendship itself.
Working with an almost exclusively female crew, and making a film that boldly eschews any “commercial” considerations, Decker seems free to explore the progressive, the problematic, and the ambivalence of being in relation. Butter on the Latch is a film that is disorienting in its oblique editing style, in its depiction of the complicated psychology of female friendship, and in its uneasy relationship to men. These are two friends that seem to have a deep connection, but also may not. Their dynamics constantly shift and confuse.
Sarah and Isolde, catching up after some time, get ready for the evening dance in a bathroom at the camp and fill each other in on what has been going on in both their lives. Isolde has just come out of a long-term relationship and Sarah’s fling has just returned to London.
Sarah: “Remember Simon?”
Sarah: “Well, he moved back to London. He also fucked me in my ass last week. It was awesome.”
Isolde: “You really have to cherish those moments, you know, it shows that you trust him.”
Sarah: “I do trust him.”
Isolde: “It would be nice to have like a real relationship sometime you know, with like a real man.”
Their conversation meanders from tales of sexual conquest and desire to wistful longings for deeper connection. The conversation is free, but it is reactive. As flippant details are revealed, each friend makes an observation about the other and probes for more information. These are two friends that are talking about men, about anal sex—but they are also talking about themselves, their bodies, their states of mind. It is a relief for them to speak. The conversation feels authentic, relatable.
Yet Decker’s film also looks at the labour of female friendship and conversation—those more frightening and confusing moments of thwarted connection. Later in the film, Sarah asks Isolde a searching question, “How are you since that really awful stuff happened in that house?” The “awful stuff” recalls the film’s opening scene where a friend (referred to only as “Pony”) woke up somewhere somewhere unfamiliar—and in danger—and called Sarah for help. In the scene that directly follows this phone call, Sarah wakes up to find herself in a similar situation as her friend—half-clothed in an unfamiliar man’s bed in an unfamiliar space. She rushes out, terrified. To Sarah’s searching question of how she’s been since this incident, Isolde mysteriously replies: “It’s fine, my grandma just needs to switch her medication.”
Sarah: “I mean, did you go to the hospital, file a report of any kind?”
Isolde: “Oh! I just remembered this joke. It’s kinda dirty. Why did Raggedy Ann get kicked out of the toy box? Because she sat on Pinocchio’s head!”
This disjointed exchange, which recalls the film’s initial scenes of violation and terror, takes place late at night as the girls are returning to their cabin after the barn dance. Sarah was dancing with Steph, but he made an abrupt excuse and left her alone on the dance floor. She later finds him outside laughing and joking with Isolde. Despite her friend having shown no romantic interest in Steph, Sarah immediately feels isolated from her, and suddenly the thread that binds them to one another is cut.
During the earlier bathroom scene, the women’s easy interaction was shot in intimate close-up, the camera following their bodies as a confidante rather than an observer. Here, the camera struggles to keep up with them, uneasily evoking Sarah’s dislocation from her friend and her anxious need to reconnect. As we hear Isolde seemingly misunderstand Sarah’s question—”How are you since that really awful stuff happened in that house?”—and then avoid it entirely, the viewer is left wondering whose experience Sarah is really relating, and for what purpose. Is she genuinely concerned for her friend? Is she trying to bring up a painful memory to punish her for connecting with Steph? Or is “that really awful stuff” the projection of a false memory that actually belongs to her?
In its preoccupation with the unseen and unheard psychological mysteries at work when two women speak, Butter on the Latch establishes itself as what Miriam Bale terms a “‘persona swap”‘ film. This is a sub-genre of the female friendship film where women “speak of dreams, hair-dos, identities, and candy … But mostly they talk of mysteries.” Bale differentiates between these traits and those of other female friendship films like Thelma and Louise (1991), where the bond between women is articulated through action and is political. The persona swap is different still from representations of sentimental female friendships like those in Beaches (1988) or Frances Ha (2013). In the persona swap, the bonds between women do not comfort and secure— they enmesh, complicate. The labour involved in the political and sentimental female friendship is about the external. The work that is being done in the persona swap film is deeply interior, enigmatic, and contradictory. There is no end goal, apart from a perceived or thwarted “magical merge” between the two women. These persona swap films, according to Bale, “have a recognizable, non-realist tone, a dream logic. They’re psychological, supernatural and, at their best, illuminate very specific aspects of relationships between women.”
In Butter on the Latch, Decker illuminates the fear of separation, the fear of a broken contract in the pact of female friendship, and the looming threat of male dominance to its authenticity. Shot like a horror film, Sarah’s unfolding romance with Steph is shown in direct contrast to her perceived distance from Isolde, and with a mounting sense of dread. As the film progresses, the women have fewer conversations; their exchanges are shorter and without the easy understanding we witnessed earlier. As Sarah feels pulled into a connection with Steph, she is haunted by nightmares in which the figure of Isolde looms ominously. As the film reaches its climax, Steph and Sarah head to the lake and fall into a passionate tryst. But something has happened. Sarah no longer trusts her lust: it has led her away from Isolde. Her passion turning to fear, she struggles with Steph, eventually appearing to drown him. But is this another false memory? She runs to Isolde, who tries to calm her. “Come here, I’ll help you,” Isolde says, wrapping a blanket around her friend’s trembling body. Sarah goes to her, her hysterical screams quieting. “Something happened,” she says. But before she can tell her friend what that something is, Isolde is asleep and Sarah is left alone.