Giving Birth to a Butterfly is a surreal drama, in the sense that there’s a functioning plot, but you need to look deeper into the film and its various symbolic clues if you want to figure out the point it’s trying to make. Beautiful and wonderfully poetic, the film acts like an interlude of sorts, as the viewer finds themselves basking in the imagery of two women at a crossroads in their lives.
We meet Diana (Annie Parisse), committed wife and mother, but with a buried sense of self (she has frequent visions of herself drowning in snow). Her major concern is the family’s finances, and is keen to make money in whatever way she can. The reason? Her husband Daryl (Paul Sparks) wants to start his own restaurant, so everything they have is going towards building that dream. Daryl is so focused on his dreams, his own day to day compromises and blows to his ego that he never stops to think of what it means for Diana. What are her dreams? Her desires? She isn’t given the space to realise them.
Then her son brings home his pregnant girlfriend Marlene (Gus Birney of TV’s Dickinson) – the child isn’t his, but he seems intent on raising it as his own. However, he hasn’t thought about it beyond that ‘heroic’ gesture, for a child costs money and both he and Marlene are still students. It is a definite pattern in the film, where the men are lost in their own daydreams of what their lives could be, leaving the practicalities to the women to deal with. Diana is the only one who raises her concerns, though it becomes apparent that she has no space to exercise any form of agency in that house.
The status quo shifts for Diana when she discovers that her bank account has been cleared, with payment going towards Janus Identity Protection. Filled with desperation and furious at herself for falling for a scam, she enlists Marlene’s help to track down the physical address of this company, and begs the girl to take her there. We see that Diana is unable to confide in her spouse, and is instead afraid to face his wrath. This isn’t a good, functional relationship she’s in, yet she continues to stay.
So off the pair of them go, and while both of them think this road trip is about Diana getting her money back, it really isn’t. Along the way, director Theodore Schaefer gives us clues so we can figure out what on earth it all means. First, there’s the allusion to Janus, who is a Roman god linked to beginnings, transitions, and doorways. Janus also has two faces, which is another significant clue since the idea of doubles is a major feature in the film – the very first scene has Diana sewing two wedding dresses, there’s the two assistants at the pharmacy who look eerily alike and lastly, there are the two Ninas (Judith Roberts) that Diana encounters towards the end of the film.
While the meaning of Giving Birth to a Butterfly may seem elusive, and a little obscure, a keen viewer should be able to make sense of the details and come to an understanding of where Diana is headed. The answer is in the title itself, for what does it mean to give birth to a butterfly? To transform from its caterpillar state, a butterfly needs to wrap itself into a cocoon and spin bright dreams of what it will become, to undergo a lifechanging metamorphosis, and emerge anew.
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At a runtime of 77 minutes, Theodore Schaefer's Giving Birth to a Butterfly feels more like an excursion than a fully realised film, but the journey is certainly worthwhile.
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