FANTASIA 2021 REVIEW: ‘Giving Birth to a Butterfly’ (2021) is Serenely Strange and Surreal

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“More interested in exploring a world of possibility than providing any kind of concrete solution.”

We might have coupled

In the bed-ridden monopoly of a moment

Or broken flesh with one another

At the profane communion table

Where wine is spill’d on promiscuous lips

We might have given birth to a butterfly

With the daily-news

Printed in blood on its wings

These words from poet Mina Loy open Theodore Schafer’s unusual film, Giving Birth to a Butterfly, which premiered at Fantasia on August 9. Spoken aloud by the young and pregnant Marlene (Gus Birney) while she reads from a tabloid, Loy’s striking poem of contradictions births the film’s title. Shot entirely on 16 mm film that contributes a soft, dreamlike quality to its visuals, Giving Birth to a Butterfly is itself a myriad of contradictions — immersive yet distanced, dramatic yet comedic, grounded yet surreal.

The film centers on Diana Dent (Annie Parisse), a woman who finds herself generally feeling unsatisfied with her life. She works as a pharmacist while her husband Daryl (Paul Sparks) is a chef. Diana supports his dream of wanting to open his own restaurant, but doesn’t share it herself. After installing a new software on her computer, she learns that she has fallen victim to financial fraud. Out of desperation, Diana forms an unlikely partnership with Marlene, who her son has only recently introduced as his girlfriend. As Marlene makes clear to her though, he’s not the one who got her pregnant; instead, he has stepped in to fill the role of an absent father.  

A young blonde woman sits behind a computer, smiling. An older brunette woman stands behind her, wearing a blue shirt. They are in an office space.
Image courtesy of Dweck Productions

Parisse and Birney make a wonderful duo here and the dynamic between Diane and Marlene is a delight to watch on-screen. They lead a cast of eccentric characters, including Marlene’s mother Monica (Constance Shulman), a former theatre actress who quite literally experiences delusions of grandeur. Schulman also happens to be Birney’s mother in real life, which is an inspired casting decision; however, the character of Marlene undoubtedly finds her strongest maternal bond in Diana. As the two set out on the road together, guided by only an unknown address and Diana’s determination to find the fraudster, they end up connecting in ways neither expected. But while the eventual outcome of their journey may seem predictable, the film’s last act upends the audience’s preconceived expectations.

At times Giving Birth to a Butterfly feels familiar in its execution, echoing the usual conventions of female-led buddy films and family dramas. However, the film later veers into uncanny territory, completely changing its trajectory. This genre shift is somewhat disorienting but adds a unique element to the story, transforming it into something new. Still, one can’t help but feel as though this transition would have been more effective earlier on in the film’s 77-minute runtime in order to allow its audience and characters an opportunity for greater exploration.

A poster in a painted style that features two women. A young blonde woman stands behind an older brunette woman. The background is pink, with the title "Giving Birth to a Butterfly" in white paint. A white deer with three legs is in the background.
Image courtesy of Dweck Productions

Without giving too much away, it is safe to say that Giving Birth to a Butterfly is more interested in exploring a world of possibility than providing any kind of concrete solution. It ultimately prioritizes the potential for its protagonist’s self-fulfillment over its plot — a choice that could potentially leave some viewers feeling unsatisfied. Just as the characters are invited to suspend their disbelief in certain moments, it is necessary for the audience to do the same in order to embrace the film’s odd resolve. Still, Giving Birth to a Butterfly manages to linger on in the mind, allowing for quiet reflection on its themes as its credits begin to roll — and even long after.

Dir: Theodore Schaefer

Prod: Dweck Productions

Cast: Annie Parisse, Gus Birney, Constance Shulman, Paul Sparks

Release Date: 2021