There’s been a lot published lately about the lack of female voices in mainstream Western cinema. Though certainly an issue, for any medium that only tells one kind of story will always strangle itself, some of the most interesting filmmaking is coming from independent, and often female, sources. The two most recent films of Josephine Decker, Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) are one of the best examples of that. Her films are ambiguous – and ambitious – meditations on fantasy, the female, and nature. Constantly challenging the framework viewers believe as necessary, Decker’s work is as intelligent as it is frightening, and is the beginning of what one hopes will be a long and fruitful career.
Rather than action and explanation, both films are centered by the fantasies and fears of a young woman, in both films named Sarah. Both have a small cast and are set in a secluded area, in Butter a Balkan music retreat, and in Mild a farm. Rather than an inciting event and the actions that follow, Decker chooses to focus on the psychological response to these events, the dependence upon fantasy, and the reality that always undermines it. Decker’s work is a kind of pastoral nightmare, where the solitude and retreat into oneself turns horrific. Though independent filmmaking and the small budgets that come with it has its limitations, Decker uses what she has to create a fiercely singular voice to ask questions and create worlds that could not be seen elsewhere.
Butter on the Latch unnerves the viewer from the get go, and there is no chance to recover. Sarah, played by performance artists Sarah Small, receives a phone call from a friend, and frantically realizes that her friend was the victim of a date rape. The phone call is onesided, and the viewer becomes as fearful as Sarah as she pleads her friend to get out of the house as soon as possible. Sarah’s fear and helplessness are suffocation, and Small delivers a performance where every part of her body is racked with emotion. Like Sarah, the viewer can only watch helplessly, and with Sarah’s agony, the audience begin to feel the same. Rather than the comfortable and passive place the viewer normally has, Decker immediately has the audience as upset as her protagonist, both helpless in the wake of this violence.
After venting her frustration be screaming, there is a smash cut to Sarah waking up, surrounded by men she doesn’t know, and fleeing the scene as quickly as she can. This horror, where one began as a helpless viewer and then becomes the victim, remains ambiguous. What actually happens to Sarah is never seen, whether the phone call was a fantasy or a premonition, and any rapes occurs off screen. There is no certainty here, only fear and panic and a violation that no one is allowed to can’t remember.
In the less frenetic aftermath, Sarah attempts to recover by leaving the city and joining her friend Isolde at a Balkan folk song and dance retreat. Beginning the film with fear, the film now slows down its pace, trying to recover. Sarah’s recovery, however, only reasserts her failures. She misses social cues, she upsets her friend, and she is always on the outskirts of the group activities. She is attracted to a man named Steph, but her attempts at seduction fail. Sarah’s retreats into the woods, and then herself, ends up isolating herself more and more from the world around her, and any return to what she had before. In Decker’s film the forest is deeply female, and Sarah, attacked in the urban world, attempts to find herself amongst the trees. Fantasy begins to take over reality, and in an extended dream sequence, Sarah is summoned by strange druid-like women dancing in the woods. This spurs her to actively try to return to what she once had, but the horror that happened to her in the city has followed her here, and was nestled within her all along.
With loose, lyrical camerawork, the characters are always followed, but rarely focused on. Rather than having their actions as precedent, Ashley Connor’s cinematography insists on remaining at the edge, following the characters cautiously, focusing more on the mental action than the interpersonal ones. When action does happen, the rapid editing at key moments disorients the viewer as much as it keeps the action unknown. The only grounding the viewer has is Sarah, but the ground beneath her feet has been upended to the point where no one knows where to stand.
Sarah Small’s performance is almost entirely bodily. Her fear and anger bubble up, and she lashes at everything around her, including herself. What Sarah experiences cannot be kept in her body or memory, and the film can only grasp at parts of it. In Butter on the Latch we never see what really happened to Sarah, nor do we see what she does to Steph. We are only left with the remains of the actions, bodies left abandoned, and the need to sort out what happened. Leaving the past alone like Sarah tries to do does not work, for it will always catch up with you. A film with such rich but uncertain psychology would be hard enough to find in elsewhere in Western cinema, let alone one dealing with a woman’s trauma. Decker’s film deals with the difficulty of the psyche and trauma, but in a way that is complicated as it is respectful. Sarah is never fetishized or dismissed, but wrestles with what has happened to her and the difficulties that surround it.
Decker’s next feature, 2014’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, breaks down the division between fantasy and reality, and where Butter begins with horror, Mild ends with it. Mild is bracketed with a voice over monologue, a young woman yearning for her “lover,” the one she waits for. The dreamy language and the nature of the fantasy is what introduces us to Sarah, played by Sophie Traub, a young woman of indeterminate age who lives on a farm with her father, Jeremiah, played by Robert Longstreet. Her fantasy is the first fantasy we are given, but hers is a naïve fantasy, romantically longing for her lover. Shortly after her opening monologue, father and daughter are seen throwing a decapitated chicken at one another, as a kind of game. What should be tender becomes deeply disturbing. Throughout the film Sarah and her sexuality are aligned with nature, but she has a dark violence to her, one that acts quickly and without reason.
Father and daughter are son joined by Akin, played by Joe Swanberg, a farmhand looking for extra money. Akin’s bumbling presence on the farm is, for Sarah, the lover she has been waiting for. She arranges for them to be alone as often as possible, but her means of seduction is biting off a frog’s head. Her fantasy of Akin as an ideal lover turn into a quick coupling in the field, and Akin quickly fleeing to return to the farm once he has finished.
After the coupling, the filmmaker now gives the viewer privy to the fantasies of Akin, which are as tedious as Sarah’s are strange. Where Sarah imagines a multiplicity of hands and instruments, an expanding into the world, Akin can only imagine Sarah in the most typical of porn poses. As he masturbates in the barn, his images of Sarah become interspersed with strange images of her with the ribbon she carries with her at all times. Somehow, even in the tritest of fantasies, Sarah cannot be contained.
Ashley Connor is return as cinematographer in Mild, and her lyrical camerawork, with an often moving and handheld camera whose subjects are rarely centered, are as loose and free as the fantasies in this film. As these fantasies increase in frequency, the divide between the two becomes less and less certain. The trees and the grass are given as much precedence as the humans, and the camerawork functions as an extension of Sarah’s priorities. The characters are often filmed from behind, and the camera dreamily follows the back of their heads, instead of documenting any clear motivation.
And pastoral idyll the farm could present is always undermined by an ever lurking horror. This horror is embodied by Jeremiah, who watches his daughter and Akin couple, who undermines Sarah’s fantasies by revealing that Akin has a wife and family, but happily tells those around him that a married man “always needs something on the side.” His masculinity is threatening and repulsive, lecherously talking to Akin about his sexual proclivities. Though the fantasies of Akin and Sarah are shown and acted on, it is the fantasies of Jeremiah that dissolves all the worlds, real and fantasy, into violence. The farm, and the family, are not what they appear to be, and Decker shifts seamlessly from pastoral to horror, in a way that makes one wonder why that aren’t always linked.
Like in Butter the Latch, Mild ends with the bubbling violence bursting, and attempted homicides with varying degrees of success. In both films, Decker’s work deals with retreats into a fantasy worlds, and how the trauma of the real world will always dominate. With her subject matter these films could easily been insensitive horror films, but in her hands are startlingly clear meditations on the female psyche and her new form of pastoral nightmares.