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Ode to a Butterfly: On the Transformative Symbol, Its Failure in ‘Antebellum,’ and Its Power in ‘Possessor Uncut’

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | October 16, 2020 |

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | October 16, 2020 |


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SPOILERS FOLLOW for the films Antebellum and Possessor Uncut

Thou winged blossom! liberated thing!
What secret tie binds thee to other flowers
Still held within the garden’s fostering?
Will they too soar with the completed hours,
Take flight and be like thee
Irrevocably free,
Hovering at will o’er their parental bowers?
—“Ode to a Butterfly,” Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The butterfly has long served as a shorthand way of communicating change and growth. The transformative nature of how a caterpillar emerges from a cocoon as a physically different being, now with antennae and wings and totally different colors, has become a symbol in a variety of genres. Think of the play M. Butterfly, and how author David Henry Hwang raises questions about gender performance and sexual desire. Think of The Silence of the Lambs, and the visual of the death’s head moth, and how obsessively serial killer Buffalo Bill covets the insects. (Thomas Harris plays around with transformation a lot in his work; remember Red Dragon?) And most recently, in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of The Haunting of Bly Manor, we see a butterfly-shaped hairpin change hands—stolen from one woman and given to another as a gesture of adoration and representation of status, and then given again to another woman in a spookier way. Death is the most final transformation of all, isn’t it?

There is a lot of depth provided by a butterfly symbol, but that doesn’t mean its resonance is automatically earned. And that’s exemplified by two recent films that take opposite approaches with the butterfly: Antebellum, which centered the butterfly in its marketing but didn’t provide the necessary context to make the image matter, and Possessor Uncut, which only includes two brief allusions to a butterfly but uses those scenes as narrative bookends to an experimental, often grotesque story about change. Each film is viewing the caterpillar/butterfly dynamic through a different lens, and saying something different about what that transmutation means—is it growth toward a new life, or the death of an old one?—but only Possessor Uncut makes its argument in a compelling way.

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Antebellum is a film with a fair amount of narrative problems (if you haven’t read Ciara’s review yet, you should!), but two are the most glaring. First is the underdeveloped main character of sociologist, activist, and constitutional scholar Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe), whose nearly every line of dialogue is some trite statement about rising up against the patriarchy. Veronica has all the signifiers of an affluent modern woman—huge house, husband who makes breakfast for their family, adoring daughter, beautiful clothes, expertise in everything from lipstick to feminism to wine—but her characterization is ultimately superficial. Having Veronica say things like “The struggle is real” and repeating the words “intersectionality” and “authenticity” don’t tell us anything about her character; Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s script just make Veronica a walking TED talk. Her white enemies, in particular Senator Blake Denton (Eric Lange) and his daughter, Elizabeth (Jena Malone), see Veronica as needing to be put in her place, and end up kidnapping her, smuggling her to the camping grounds where they’re dressing up as Southern aristocrats and members of the Confederacy, and renaming her “Eden.” For months, Veronica/Eden is forced to endure rape by Denton (who is dressing up as a general named “Him”), watch other slaves be brought to the plantation, and work picking cotton and doing other chores. During this horrendous time, one of Julia’s only friends, Julia (Kiersey Clemons), who is the general’s latest slave, hangs herself after suffering a miscarriage. When Veronica/Eden comes across Julia’s swinging body, the camera zooms in on Julia’s ankle to show us a butterfly tattoo, a moment that seems to galvanize Veronica/Eden into trying to plan an escape.

What happens next is, of course, that Veronica/Eden does end up fighting back, finally, by stealing the general’s cellphone, calling her family, and then setting fire to the campground and killing her captors. (Frustratingly, Antebellum acts like she is the first person to successfully try this, forcing us to accept that in the last decade or so, groups of kidnapped Black Americans would acquiesce to living like slaves instead of joining together to rise against their white, Confederate-masquerading oppressors.) When Veronica/Eden rides out on horseback, with Elizabeth’s body in a noose trailing behind her horse, this is all meant to be very triumphant. And sure, seeing racists get murdered is generally pretty fine! But that satisfaction isn’t enough to right Antebellum, which is most predominantly a failure of imagination. Antebellum is trying to tell a story of reverse transformation—of being dragged back to who you were before, and then thrusting forward again in self-actualization—but to do so, the film relies on a grotesque amount of violence to almost suggest that Black slaves were unable (or unwilling?) to organize resistance. A long tracking shot shows us the plantation with dozens of Black people at work, and when Veronica/Eden arrives, she eventually just settles alongside them. Antebellum inserts scene after scene of physical brutality as a way of beating down Veronica/Eden, and in doing so, doesn’t imagine its Black characters as anything other than receptacles for pain and suffering. Julia is the most obvious example of this: she arrives pregnant, one of the white soldiers gets angry at her for her statements about him, he attacks her and causes her miscarriage, and then Julia commits suicide. That zoom-in to show us the tattoo on her ankle—one of the anachronistic details that the film includes to try and trick us regarding the film’s timeline—is meant to be sort of a wink at us about what the butterfly image represents, but you had to kill a pregnant young woman to do that? Then your messaging sucks!

Antebellum overloads itself with the butterfly: It’s on both of the film’s posters (ahem, graphic design is my passion), it’s in the primary marketing image now used for the film on VOD, and it’s on Julia’s ankle.

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And I suppose presenting the butterfly as the thing holding Veronica/Eden back is meant to be subversive—that this symbol of progression and growth would be used as a gag, its garish red color meant to remind us of bloodshed. But I must admit that I hate the implications of this, because I think the messaging here is quite murky. Let me try to wrap my brain around it: We see butterflies as symbols of one’s beautiful “final form,” sort of like the ugly duckling/beautiful swan binary. So, if butterflies are meant to be the end goal, then wouldn’t using them like this—as a means of control and suppression—imply that such growth is actually being used against us?

My reading of the butterfly use here is very different from some other takes I’ve seen, including this one by Brynne Ramella at ScreenRant, who wrote: “Antebellum’s use of butterflies signifies that as a whole, the United States needs to undergo a transformation when it comes to its racist ways.” I mean, does it, though? Because again, the butterfly imagery is focused specifically on two characters—on Veronica/Eden and on Julia—and not in encouraging or affirming ways. Instead, the butterfly almost takes on a tone of punishment or admonishment, like Veronica/Eden and Julia should have known better than to assume they wouldn’t, I don’t know, get kidnapped by Confederate fetishists and turned into slaves who get raped all the time. So much of Antebellum is a miss, and its use of the butterfly is, too—as muddled thematically as the rest of the film.

In contrast to Antebellum is Possessor Uncut, Brandon Cronenberg’s absolutely brutal body horror that is as precise as it is grotesque. Possessor Uncut explores from a variety of angles who we are and how we become that way, and posits a deeply unsettling question: Could someone copy that? Is there more to us than just a combination of our quirks: our voice, our gait, our mannerisms? Or are we only an amalgam of our surface-facing qualities?

At first, that question seems to have a dispiritingly simple answer: Yes, we’re all just flesh and blood and bones, and there’s not much unique to us at all. We can be mimicked, and we can be destroyed. In fact, it’s the job of corporate assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) to do so: Deep-pocketed clients hire the company for which she works to plan out elaborate kidnappings, body-takeovers, and murders. Vos is briefed on each assignment by her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who walks her through whose body she’s supposed to inhabit, and who she’s then supposed to kill. Possessor Uncut opens with one of these assignments: While hooked up to an elaborate machine that looks like something out of Alien, Vos’s consciousness is transferred to the subject, in this case a young Black waitress. She can control the woman’s body, and she does so, striding right up to a man and stabbing him over and over and over, dozens of times. His body is practically ground beef by the time she’s done. To retreat back to her own true body, Vos needs the host body to die—whether by her own hand or by someone else’s; she screams, “Pull me out!”—and then she’s briefed again, in her own body, by Ginder to check whether she’s fully back.

That identity test involves a box of items, some personal to Vos, some not, that she must inspect and explain to Ginder to prove her baseline. Two items are given great importance here: her grandfather’s pipe, which reminds her of her family connections, and a red butterfly, mounted in a shadowbox. The butterfly is another reminder of her childhood, but unlike her grandfather’s pipe—which is a memory that evokes tenderness and love—the butterfly box inspires regret. Vos laments killing the insect, saving it forever in the shadowbox, depriving the world of something so beautiful and so unique. But still: she kept the box anyway. She’s kept it all this time. It’s important enough to her that it reminds her of who she once was, reminds her so fully that it helps center her after each gory assassination. Was that butterfly the first thing Vos ever killed? Maybe.

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Possessor Uncut furthers these questions of selfhood with its next assignment—or as Vos calls it, the next “narrative”—which has Vos inhabit the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a drug dealer turned tech company employee who is dating the daughter of the company’s billionaire founder, John Parse (Sean Bean). Parse’s stepson has hired Vos’s company to take over Tate’s body and have him kill his girlfriend, her father, and himself, which would leave Parse’s stepson to step in and take over. It’s an elaborate plan, one that relies on Vos believably mimicking Tate, and it’s complicated by the fact that Vos is beginning to lose it. She starts seeing spots in her vision—areas where it seems like perhaps her perspective isn’t entirely aligned with Tate’s. Tate’s job at the software company, which is to spy on people using their computer cameras in order to collect intel about mundane aspects of their lives—their curtains, their lamps, their bedding—so that the firm can then sell that data mining, unnerves Vos. There are too many people to watch, and too many other lives to consider.

Ultimately, Vos’s sense of being increasingly unmoored doesn’t stop her from doing the job—how Tate attacks Parse, using a fireplace poker to dig around in his mouth and break apart his teeth, might be one of the grossest things I’ve ever seen—but it does stop her from killing herself and returning to her body. That indecision creates a battle of wills within Tate, with Tate himself and Vos fighting for control, and Cronenberg imagines that antagonism with an experimental, psychedelic sequence of melting body parts, mirrored reflections, and multicolored kaleidoscopes. This is transformation, and it is horrific, and it brings to mind how a caterpillar actually becomes a butterfly or a moth. Whatever is happening in that cocoon must be surreal, too: the creation of new body parts, the growth of wings and antennae and legs. When Tate, in his mind, imagines himself strangling Vos and taking off her face to use as a mask, it’s a horrifying image that speaks to the weird layering of identity going on inside of him. Vos is Tate, Tate is Vos, and how the two are blurring into something else is monstrous.

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Possessor Uncut ends with another bloodbath as Tate, now somewhat in control of his own body, visits the home of Vos’s estranged husband and their son. As he demands answers for what has happened to him (“Do you ever think of your wife as a predator? … Do you ever worry about parasites?”), Vos’s son attacks—Girder has possessed him as a way to kill Tate and bring Vos back to her own body, and the scene ends with both Vos’s husband and son, and Tate, dead. It’s a bloodbath, a graveyard of bodies manipulated and possessed and then thrown away, and back at their company’s headquarters, Girder is leading Vos through another baseline test. Her grandfather’s pipe, and then the mounted butterfly. Vos barely looks at it, but she can repeat its history: “This is also mine. I killed and mounted it one summer when I was a little girl.” And the question of transformation, and what we lose instead of what we gain, snaps again into focus. That red butterfly captures the little bit of herself that Vos loses with every job as she becomes something else, and Possessor Uncut makes you wonder: What the hell is she turning into?

Antebellum begins with the William Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” and that statement comes from Faulkner’s novel Requiem for a Nun. (If you haven’t read Pulitzer Prize finalist Soraya Nadia McDonald’s piece for The Undefeated about how the novel connects to the HBO Watchmen miniseries, you need to.) In Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner asks about the personal burden of guilt, about how we live with trauma, and about how the linear nature of time collapses when we consider the events that shaped us. When you remember formative moments, don’t they feel like yesterday? But they’re unreachable, and lost to us, and who we are now is not who we were then. The caterpillar never stays a caterpillar. Its entire function, and its entire being, is in the service of becoming something else. That transformation is inevitable, and the butterfly, in its emergence, makes that plain. Between Antebellum and Possessor Uncut, only the latter seems to understand the undeniability of impermanence.

Antebellum is currently available through VOD and digital rental. Possessor is playing in limited theaters and drive-ins as of October 9, and is coming soon to VOD and digital rental.

Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. These films were reviewed via screening links.




Roxana Hadadi is a Senior Editor for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter.



Image sources (in order of posting): Lionsgate, Neon, Lionsgate, Neon