Opening in limited release Nov. 14, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild & Lovely are the two debut fiction features of performance artist Josephine Decker. Though the transition between media is not always smooth, the results of Decker’s foray into film are often breathtaking and always provoking.
The twin films are not explicitly linked by story; they resemble variations on a theme. The first, Butter on the Latch, is a free-form improvisation, untethered by a pre-determined narrative or scripted dialogue, while Thou Wast Mild & Lovely embraces those traditional tenets of filmmaking. Both films are female-centered stories, created by a predominantly female crew, that meditate on female hysteria. In the director’s own words, “I think of madness as an important and powerful part of being a woman ... In madness one does not embrace oneself, and the film [Butter on the Latch], and probably many others I will make, is about people who do not know how to embrace themselves -- and thus go awry.”
The slippery psalm, Butter on the Latch, follows two such women (most of the shots are centered on a long mane of dark hair) through a moist and verdant forest as they attempt to recuperate from the failure of modernity and the trauma of urban sexuality at a secluded Balkan folk art summer camp in the California woods. The girls return to tradition: to folk tales and polyharmonic singing, accordions and tambourines, and finally to a wedding dress, but the charming rejuvenation of the camp is interspersed with disorienting segments of unidentifiable anxiety and horror. Blurred point-of-view shots or quick cuts between highly charged, mysterious images suggest all is not right in Eden.
The film opens with a mockery of an “old-country” marriage, but our protagonists, women who take advantage of twenty-first century sexual liberation with massage parlor hook-ups and one-night-stands only to be mistreated and betrayed, reach back in time together to those old-country traditions for help and healing. Perhaps this is the sinister subtext that haunts the film: from Balkan fairy tales to New York clubs, the position of women is constantly one of subordination.
Earnest chemistry between the two characters imbue the film with ease and authenticity. Indeed, the actresses (Sarah Small, Isolde Chea-Lawrence) and director of photography (stunning Ashley Connor) were all culled from Decker’s personal friendships. The natural lilt and camaraderie of the improvised conversations is never stale. Only the occasional overuse of stylized shooting distracts the viewer from the compelling women and their surreal environs.
Decker’s actors were handed a script for her second film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely. Another Sarah (Sophie Traub), this time a farmer’s daughter, sexually mature but unpracticed and living in isolation with her drunk, domineering father (Robert Longstreet), breaks their incestuous idyll when she becomes obsessed the soft spoken summer farm hand (Drinking Buddies director Joe Swanberg). Although Decker reigned in the film’s production with a screenplay, she was absolutely liberal doling out the nastiness. Grotesque horrors writhe about the farm: amphibian ingestion, shears in the spank bank, rotting horses. The movie does not go down easily; instead the film forces unpleasantness into our consciousness, refusing to ignore the ragged edges of relationships. Again, a woman who “does not know how to embrace herself” (because of an overpowering patriarch) leads to unhealthy havoc on screen.
As a director, Decker feels no responsibility to demystify character motivations, differentiate between fantasy and reality, or craft tidy conclusions. Instead we are gifted with lush guided meditations on the relationships between sexuality and modernity, tradition and liberation, desire and power. The influence of Decker’s performance past is evident in the imagined purpose of these films: instead of didacticism, she creates an opportunity for experiential learning. She lets all the dark parts show to fight against the madness of self-editing without offering certain redemption. Butter on the Latch exposes the violence of modern romance; Thou Wast Mild & Lovely reveals the devastation of repressed sexuality. Both films leave the viewer pleasantly uncomfortable, with a handful of images and sounds to interpret ourselves. See them with an open mind and an empty stomach.
Images and video via Josephine Decker, Indiewire, Sarah Smalls, CineliciousPics