Catherine O’Sullivan, from Duke of York’s, looks forward to the visit of director Josephine Decker to the historic Brighton cinema. Sophie Brown will conduct a Q&A following a screening of Deckers’ wildly imaginative Thou Wast Mild And Lovely on Friday 14 August; Butter On The Latch screens on Monday 17 August.
For Josephine Decker, film is a conversation.
Her movies are in dialogue with the great auteurs of the past. The texture and singularity of her vision bring to mind certain names. Lynch, Bergman and Malick have all been invoked by rapturous critics – a trio any young filmmaker would be proud to stand beside.
Yet her films are not static or overly reverent. She is not beholden to the tropes or motifs of film history, creating troubling, slippery and beguiling work that continually instigates fresh conversations. Her films, rich as they are, leave the viewer with many unanswered questions. They trade in symbols and hidden allegiances, unfold at their own surprising pace, and linger long after the final credits have rolled.
Butter On The Latch
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Butter On The Latch, Josephine Decker’s first feature film, is its humour. The loose, improvised dialogue between Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) and Sarah (Sarah Small) is fresh and funny. These are real women, with a real kinship, talking in an authentic, slightly bawdy manner that rings true. Their anecdotal chatting at the film’s outset provides moments of levity, lulling the viewer into a false sense of safety before the film reveals itself as what it truly is: a dense, layered and often very frightening meditation on female friendship and jealousy, shot through with mythology and folk music. The verisimilitude of the dialogue and acting makes the eventual pay-off even more unsettling.
The premise is fairly simple. Isolde and Sarah are two close friends who are spending some time together at a Balkan folk music camp in the woods of Mendocino in north-west California. A small event comes between them, and their relationship begins to disintegrate. From this simple set-up, however, Decker weaves a narrative in her own filmic language, unlike anything you’ve seen before. Butter On The Latch is part sinister-sister cautionary tale, part horror film, part twisted romance, and entirely its own strange beast.
Decker must have been delighted when she hit upon the idea of using the environs of this real music camp for her first feature. The lush greenery of the forest provides an appealing background against which the narrative unfolds, while the rhythms and melodies of the surrounding folk music bleed across the dialogue, obscuring and illuminating in turn. Rather than being a bucolic respite from the strains of contemporary living, the camp becomes a nightmarish zone of menacing forestry. There is the sense of terrible and unknown forces at work.
Certainly all the apparatus of filmmaking is at work in this piece. This is textural filmmaking. Careful attention is paid to hair, tree bark, the slime trail of a snail, spider webs. Nature leaks through the screen, enlivened by the occasional stop-motion burst of authentic horror. As viewers, we are simultaneously repelled and enchanted by the breakdown of the women’s friendship, helplessly watching to the very end.
Thou Wast Mild And Lovely
Like Butter On The Latch, Thou Wast Mild And Lovely unfolds in a setting that blends the archaic and the contemporary. It takes place on a small farm in rural Kentucky, run by father-and-daughter duo Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet) and Sarah (Sophie Traub). The isolation of the farm and the focus on manual labour – as well as the Biblical resonance of the characters’ names – give the setting an old-fashioned feel, but the bursts of heavy metal that leak from a stereo situate it in our own present. Like Butter On The Latch, despite its archaic trappings, this is a decidedly 21st-century tale.
The action, for a lot does happen in the film’s deceptively slight running time, is sparked by the arrival of Akin (Joe Swanberg), a labourer whom the family have hired to help them during the summer months. Decker herself has talked of the debt she owes to John Steinbeck, and there’s perhaps also something of Thomas Hardy in the set-up, in which a young man begins to court a farmer’s daughter under a wary paternal eye. Sex and violence rupturing through the idyllic – this is not a new theme in art.
Yet the peculiarities of this film are all Decker’s own. And they are many. There is the cryptic voiceover that speaks in riddles throughout the film, the interpolation of contemporary dance, and the horrific explosions of violence that erupt without warning. Decker manages to include scenes that would seem gimmicky or overly stylised in another’s hands – I’m thinking specifically of a series of shots from the point of view of an animal – but that fit seamlessly within this film’s specific grammar.
She achieves this with the help of her creative team, one of whom I’ll focus on here. Ashley Connor, the film’s DP, has a very specific cinematographic style. Her camera shifts in and out of focus in a discomforting way, delicately outlining every vein on a leaf and whorl on a tree trunk before softening into a shimmering wash. The light, streaming through foliage, is dappled, as is the film’s soundscape, an uncanny mixture of tense violins, jaunty in-film ukulele playing, cicadas, and the hot snuffling sounds of an animal’s breath.
Two films in, Decker already has a distinctive and recognisable style. There are plenty of resonances between Butter On The Latch and Thou Wast Mild And Lovely. Both films are enamoured with the dangerous beauty of the natural world. Both trade in archetypes, riddles and fairy tales. And in both, lines of allegiance, desire and hostility shift in complicated ways as the characters move towards their eventual fates.