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Review: Josephine Decker’s ‘Thou Wast Mild And Lovely’ & ‘Butter On The Latch’

Review: Josephine Decker's 'Thou Wast Mild And Lovely' & 'Butter On The Latch'

These reviews are reprints from our coverage of the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.

Thou Wast Mild & Lovely
In the sun-dappled, sweltering hills on a Kentucky farm, a minute shift in the pastoral chemistry unnerves nature. This change in the air is not initially calamitous, but nevertheless felt, possibly subconsciously, by the entire environment. This interruption comes in the form of Akin (filmmaker/actor Joe Swanberg), a young farmhand whose presence upsets the delicate balance of harmony on the ranch of Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet of “Take Shelter”), a curmudgeonly old farmer, and Sarah (Sophie Traub), his naïve and peculiar young daughter. Perhaps the equilibrium of this idyllic setting is thrown because their relationship has something ineffably insalubrious hanging over it.

When Akin comes along to take up the job as the new farmhand, both parties reacts like disrupted molecules. The capricious and offbeat Sarah is intrigued and Jeremiah is immediately leery of the sheepish young man she taunts and abuses. And Akin, who takes off his wedding band the second he arrives for work (and conveniently doesn’t mention he has a wife and child) is also similarly captivated by the fetching young girl. As the offbeat narrative progresses—full of poetic, but obscure voice-over, time-lapse photography, oblique arty shots—Sarah’s flirtations grow, Akin’s desires begins to throb and Jeremiah’s mistrust begins to curdle into something much more sinister that doubt. As the movie’s sexual tensions and personal conflicts crescendo, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” swells into something much uglier, mystifying, and horrific than you’d expect. But for all its surprises, moments of shocking violence, interesting performances and expressively told stylistic devices, this inconsistent picture is far too ungainly for its own good. “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” is bursting at the seams to articulate itself, but a thousand ideas thrown at the wall often makes for a garbled mess.

An arty sensual drama with woozy experimental flourishes “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” arguably has a split personality disorder. Its dreamy, loose air soon evolves into a charged erotic thriller only then to morph into something more chaotic and nightmarishly psychosexual. It’s ambitious, but habitually chokes under the weight of its various pretenses. Directed and co-written by Josephine Decker (her debut film “Butter On The Latch” is also in competition at the Berlin Film Festival which is quite the feat), “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” walks the fine razor’s edge of being sensually mysterious and frustratingly opaque and falls off and cuts itself often on its affectations. Occasionally told from the perspective of a cow (not joking) and featuring a childlike ambiguous sing-songy voice-over narrative from Sarah’s perspective (a POV that it seemingly abandons), “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” is also maddeningly precious at times.

Erratically told, while Decker certainly has an vision and an eye, her problem lies with tone and not knowing when to say when to various arthouse conceits. Shot by indie DP Ashley Connor, the frequently beautiful cinematography which is often blurry and indirectly framed is initially striking, but quickly becomes tiresome (as if the focus puller was fired mid-shoot and the production continued regardless). And all of the film’s animated stylish postures tend to wear out their welcome fast. When “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” tries to be intimate, it becomes invasive with out-of-focus close-ups practically bumping alongside the actor’s face. When it attempts to be delicate, it becomes affected. While the movie’s visual language has a strong grasp of the sensuous, a corporeal uneasiness and a tactile anxiety, much of its admirable qualities are undone by awkward and unformed aesthetics (a would-be terrifying dream sequence, telegraphing moments in the third act, is seemingly stolen from a 17-year-old Salvador Dali’s storyboards with their random shocking images, jump cuts, and more, and it fails to impress).

More vexing, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” is recurrently ill-defined and doesn’t work to explain any of its character motivations: Jeremiah is prickishly suspicious and ill at ease, while the socially maladjusted Akin wants to be an adulterer from minute one. But the movie doesn’t seem interested in explaining or exploring the why. In a better film, you’d admire not being spoon fed every character detail, but Decker’s movie is exasperatingly vague on many levels. In the near loathsome and volatile third act—sex and violence break out haphazardly—Decker goes for broke and misses her mark to an almost infuriating degree. A masturbation sequence borders on the amateurish. A sexual threesome in the movie is baffling, comes out of nowhere and much like other parts of the movie is barely explained. Decker’s picture has jarring style to spare, but rarely is it lovely or mild.

Co-starring Kristin Slaysman, Matt Orme, and Geoff Marslett, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be. Early on, the picture purports to be about the sensual and enigmatic inner life of a woman, but her POV is soon dropped in favor of its genre trappings and twists. Scored by Brooklyn musician Molly Herron and Jeff Young, swirling cellos flutter around like flies taunting cows and while the dissonant and beautiful noise makes for an atmosphere of blissful desire and amplifies the geographical terror and unease, it also over does it.

Too impulsive for its own good, for all its patience-testing problems, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” also sort of announces the arrival of a new filmmaker. Perhaps one that’s far from having found her footing yet, but with a few years of patience, wisdom and knowledge of when to pull back, could evolve into an interesting director to watch. While Decker can’t stick the landing—her simmering movie’s boiling point is a contrived dealbreaker—the strange and evocative feeling that it leaves you with is haunting and memorable.

One can argue that Decker’s three maladjusted and fragile characters are the exact reasons why this drama is as mercurial as it is—the delicate molecules of their fragile environment being jarred enough to burn down the entire facade of the bucolic setting. Decker, like her movies, possesses a je ne sais quoi quality that is fascinating, even when it’s not connecting as it should. Alluring and captivating, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” can’t ultimately overcome its undeveloped arty tendencies, but its hazy exploration of dread and desire is still unique enough to make an impression. [C+]

Butter On The Latch
Indie filmmaker Josephine Decker pulled off one of the major coups of the Berlin Film Festival—a “Double Decker.” A cute phrase to communicate the fact that she had her two debut films, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” and “Butter On the Latch,” both accepted and premiering at the Berlinale. It’s certainly no small accomplishment and nothing to sneeze at. And while some were taken with Decker’s oblique, dreamy experimentalism that often charted moods of dread with a sensual palate, placing her as a “filmmaker to watch” is perhaps putting the cart before the horse. Decker’s definitely got something, but as unformed and inchoate as it is now, it’s largely a bunch of expressive ideas, atmospheres and cinematic forms that never quite coalesce. “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” the film we caught first, was aggravatingly precious and arty, but haunting (our review). Giving it time to linger, the frustrating elements evaporated to the back of the mind and what one is left with is its evocative sense of sensuousness and unnerving terror. One might have thought being acclimated to her somewhat erratic work, “Butter On the Latch” (which is technically her debut as it was finished first), would go down more smoothly, but in fact, it’s the lesser picture, connecting even more loosely and is arguably more maddening.

Another drama with fantasy and horror elements, the film centers on two friends, Sarah (Sarah Small) and Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence), who reunite at a Balkan folk song and dance camp in the woods of Mendocino, California (that feels an awful lot like a Renaissance faire). Decker is good at articulating sinister moods and unstable psyches, but anything resembling a cogent narrative is challenged. Opening with a panicked scene of alarm, Sarah talks a friend through a nightmarish situation; she has awoken after a night of binge drinking naked and among strange men. The transition to the next sequence—Sarah going through the same horrible situation—is jarring and poorly formed. We’re to assume Sarah was talking to herself all along or it’s some horrible meta-dream gone wrong, but so obliquely constructed, it’s easy to be left baffled by the entire sequence. And how that connects to anything down the road in the film is mystifying. From there, the movie is 50 minutes of improvised conversations and a freewheeling approach that sees Sarah and Isolde’s friendship slowly begin to fray. It culminates in a sensual moment of sex in the woods with a musician that turns eerie and then horrific. But what it all means outside of an unraveling psyche shot in a wantonly elliptical manner will be beyond anyone but the extremely patient viewer. There’s certainly something to be said for the expressive and experimental manner with which Decker communicates uncanny textures and unsettling psychological states, but until the filmmaker can include some kind of adhesive, narrative or otherwise, that can glue her disparate ideas together meaningfully, all that one is left with is evocative images and elusive auras that never truly or satisfyingly add up to much. [C-] 

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