I was a huge fan of Josephine Decker’s first film, Butter on the Latch, when I caught it last year. It was a strange, hallucinatory reflection upon female friendship set in a Balkan folk music camp, and its radical style could easily be compared to Terence Malik or David Lynch, but had an intense, dark physicality of its own. Her second feature, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, employs that same style to such a similar extent as to consider the two films a diptych, but her sophomore feature improves on the promise of Butter on the Latch in almost every way, providing greater clarity in terms of plot without sacrificing any of the elliptical expressiveness that made her first feature so remarkable.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely concerns Akin (Joe Swanberg), a young, married man who conceals this fact about himself when he goes to work at a farm set out of time and place. There he meets Sarah (Sophie Traub, in an absolutely fearless performance), the daughter of the hostile farm owner Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet), and begins a passionate affair. Sarah is wild and volatile, and Akin never feels fully at ease with either family member, even as he slowly becomes more engrossed in this little world. When his wife eventually comes to visit, things take a turn more explicitly into horror and the tensions that were brewing under the surface bubble up spectacularly.
The film’s key focus is on Sarah, who is a singular creation unlike anything I’ve seen before. She is defined by her raw, earthy sexuality, at once completely unguarded whilst somehow also being manipulative and scheming, sometimes startlingly direct and other times enigmatic and veiled. Speaking at a Q&A at the BFI last weekend, Decker spoke of how she was inspired by Cathy from East of Eden, and that writers in film and literature are often afraid to tap into the darker parts of female sexuality. Sarah spends large portions of the film writhing alone in animalistic sexual ecstasy with the landscape, but this isn’t as simple or reductive as a celebration of her feminine attunement to the natural world; there’s a real monstrousness to Sarah that provides us with no easy answers. In voiceover, she’s constantly referring to her lover, but she doesn’t mean Akin. She means death.
And if there’s darkness creeping around the edges of Decker’s film for the most part, they completely envelop it by its close. Decker’s style, as with Butter on the Latch, reduces its characters to body parts and physical movements throughout, and its rare for you to see a face clearly. But for a time towards the end of Mild and Lovely its characters are almost completely abstracted, reduced to breath and sensation. Its eventual closing shot – a panorama that feels like a huge breath of relief after the extreme close-ups that define the rest of the film – has to be one of the most striking we’ll see all year.
But for all its visceralness, what makes Thou Wast Mild and Lovely so unique is the questions it asks. For all of Decker’s sensuous style, she is first and foremost a thinker, and none of her radical expressiveness would be worth anything if there wasn’t a clear voice behind it, asking important questions. Decker will be considered a feminist filmmaker, and rightly so considering her keen engagement with female sexuality and women’s perspectives, but her themes are more universal than that, engaging directly with questions about our relationships with each other, with the natural world, and with our own selves. One can still see Decker developing in these films, still feeling out what works and what doesn’t, but even if moments fall flat, the overall impression is of a unique and powerful voice in independent cinema.