Family drama, a journey of discovery, unnoticed mysticism, devastating self-reflection, alienation, deep regrets, unanswered questions, unresolvable frustration. How in the world does Turkish director Tolga Karaçelik’s new feature film Butterflies end up being a comedy? Simple: it’s a black comedy. Not only a black comedy, but an exceedingly black comedy masterfully disguised as just a kind-of black comedy. A virtual treasure trove of subtle symbolism and overt yet easily overlooked metaphors serves as the background of this unhappy farce. It’s a film which simultaneously upends the most common tropes of the dysfunctional family experience while thumbing its nose at any undue expectations of destiny. If the audience shows up thinking the big joke is going to be that people can surprise you, just wait for the final punchline. The big reveal is that in fact, most of us are exactly who we’re most afraid of being. And yes, it’s all a huge laugh, just not of the instantly cathartic kind.
The story is straightforward enough. Three estranged siblings – sister Suzan and brothers Cemal and Kenan – are compelled to rejoin after great absences from each other at the beckoning of a mysterious phone call from their father. Not giving a reason, he summons them home to the remote village which all three had forsaken after their mother’s suicide long before. In fact, none of the offspring have spoken to their dad in about 30 years. And yet, here they band together, somewhat reluctantly, to see what his deal is. The road trip back to their roots is like moving backwards in time. Weird hotels, rowdy taverns, and a throwback hamlet that still has chickens running around the dirt road aren’t just funny obstacles for our trio of protagonists. What’s really happening is an uncomfortable sojourn backwards to their own pasts. The siblings have been urban folk their whole adult lives. And the myriad of unanswered questions their obtuse former hometown pops up offers few answers. But they sure do stir up painful memories and self-examination. Suffice to say, nobody is really interested in seeing the father again – he’s established early on as a cruel and selfish jerk – but the situation they find themselves in causes unexpected revelations and sometimes dangerous emotional instability.
It’s hard to talk too much about what happens at the village without spoiling a lot of great surprises. But it may be prudent to whet audience appetite with some of the more potent symbolism the comedy presents. A rural imam who is losing his faith to science and refuses to pray anymore. A blind shepherd (let that one sink in for a minute). Dumb beasts who eat something they shouldn’t with graphically volatile results. An aspiring astronaut who lights his helmet in protest to not being sent into space. A pushover ex-wife who starts fights for no reason. And how about a voice actor who has trouble talking about himself with any honesty? Never mind the title’s symbolism. When the eponymous butterflies do show up, they absolutely do not signify what we were all expecting them to. While such an ensemble of heady analogies can often be either heavy-handed to take seriously or too esoteric to notice, the film’s slow burning scenes afford viewers the time and space to be saturated with the meaning, in perfect synchronicity with the dialogue and acting going on around it. In a word, it all works. And really, really well.
Besides the deft direction and patient pacing provided by Karaçelik, the success of Butterflies owes an enormous debt to the very gifted actors gracing its narrative. Tolga Tekin, Bartu Küçükçaglayan and Tugce Altug (Cemal, Kenan and Suzan, respectively) are in perfect balance as the three siblings who are foils for each other as well as instigators. Each performance seems to draw out the best in the next. Naturalistic, dynamic, but without overdoing their roles, these three characters are realized with the sort of alchemy most thespians would envy. Each and every one of the supporting cast are equally effective, from the brief look at the hotel manager to the oddball residents of the town. There’s even something totally weird about the chickens…yes, the chickens, and no I won’t give it away.
Anyone looking for a nice, neat, family comedy experience with a few difficulties, a la Ron Howard or perhaps Billy Wilder, need not apply to the ticket booth. Neither is the morose punishment junkie seeking a Tolstoy experience via an Ingmar Bergman lens. What unfolds instead is a high-wire act that maintains all the high stakes of a misstep’s fall yet remains superficially entertaining. There are so many layers of deception between the characters, so much subterfuge of assumptions by the director, and such a plethora of traditional gags, it would be easy to forget the razor’s edge the film travels upon. It becomes a painful exercise in self-reflection as every disgruntled family member ends up seeing their own shortcomings in the visage of their kin. Anybody with difficult family relationships will recognize at once the pain of such rifts. And so too will they identify with their own failures in those situations. It’s an exceedingly rare accomplishment in cinema to so audaciously dare authenticity while maintaining an equilibrium of sincerity. It requires the delicacy of butterflies combined with the blunt force of gravity. Which, in more ways than one, Butterflies accomplishes on its own terms.