Josephine Decker is a brave young experimental artist in modern times, something of a rarity this day and age. Her medium of choice is film and she takes full advantage of the camera, lighting, and mise en scene. Every shot of her films tells a small story and when all of those shots combine, artistic magic begins to take place. She has two experimental films out now, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, and while both films are different, they each share strong similarities and highlight Decker’s artistic strengths.
Butter on the Latch is a surreal story about two old friends Sarah (Sarah Small) and Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) who visit a Balkan folk song and dance camp in the woods of Mendocino, California. During their visit, they have a good time laughing, dancing and enjoying the hippie life but eventually, their joy turns to pain and they each spiral downward into a dark journey into the unknown. Unclear of what is real and what is not, each of these women attempt to make sense of a situation that doesn’t make any sense.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is a much different film in that it takes place on a desolate farm and deals with truly bizarre characters. Akin (Joe Swanberg) plays a farmhand who keeps his wedding ring in the glove compartment of his car. In the hopes of exploring new sexual frontiers, he meets free spirit Sarah (Sophie Traub) and they share a few erotic yet peculiar moments of physical bliss. Sophie’s mentally-unbalanced father Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet) objects and the finale of the film turns into a creepy David Lynch-like nightmare where all of the characters are forced to come face to face to evil.
Both Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovley each showcase Josephine Decker’s unique and highly unorthodox style of moviemaking. She has a style that is quite difficult to explain in that it is experimental and extremely random. Each film tells a relatively simple story but in an artistic (somewhat pretentious) manner. She does a lot of close-ups and tends to keep the camera out of focus. These filmmaking techniques both help and harm the actual film because with so much wild camera action, telling the story can be inconsistent and hard to swallow.
Each film could have strongly benefited from a more linear narrative. The acting in each film is top notch and there is a good deal of improvisation which enhances the plot, making it feel very organic and real. The only criticisms for each of Decker’s films are her camerawork and the random cuts, which are at times very pleasant to look at but more the most part, seem forced and unwarranted. I do respect Decker’s artistic spirit and it is quite evident she is highly invested in her work, so we have a tricky situation of artist pleasing herself versus pleasing her audience. In terms of the two films mentioned in this review, it is very apparent that Ms. Decker really only cares about pleasing herself but there are probably a few people out there who think otherwise.