The naïve and sexually adventurous farmer’s daughter, the mysterious stranger stopped by for the season and the gruff, devious farmer; all stock characters who’ve appeared in various forms from dyed in the wool romance to hardcore pornography. In her second feature film (her first, Butter on the Latch is also showing at the festival), Josephine Decker reworks them once again as part of a wildly inventive hybrid that’s weird, wonderful and experimental to a fault.
An erotic drama with forays into psychological thriller, flat out horror and unexpected flights of fantasy, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is certainly not devoid of ideas. It often appears to be overflowing with them. Decker certainly has no fear of experimentation. If anything, she seems unable to rein herself in, compelled to jump position on every beat.
Buried underneath her avalanche of imagination is a simple story. Joe Swanberg’s Akin arrives to help out for the season at Jeremiah’s (Robert Longstreet) farm. There, he tries to hide his marital status while fighting a growing attraction to Jeremiah’s daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub). It’s an unsuccessful battle that’s finally lost after a frog serves as a grisly aphrodisiac one crisp morning.
Decker’s film may be intensely sexual but there’s not even a smattering of cheap titillation. This is no heaving bosomed, barnyard romp. It’s the sex of the side-lined and desperate. More time is spent crudely fantasising, masturbating out of sight of others where shame is personal and no impediment. It only gets truly awkward, and then truly dark, when Akin’s wife Drew (Kristin Slaysman) arrives, Decker plunging her unhappy characters down a terrifyingly messy rabbit hole no one wants to venture into.
Underpinning it is an irreverent creativity that both shines and shackles the film. At its best, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely steps lightly through shots of rolling countryside, threat tinged dinner conversations, glimpses of flesh and even a cow’s time hopping point of view. In her characters, played with committed dedication, particularly from past mumblecore collaborator Swanberg and the beguiling Traub, traits manifest themselves physically. Akin is tense and uptight, walking with a jerky gait while Sarah displays an openness in her movements, limbs floating gently to their own rhythms. Opposite them, Jeremiah clutches his stick with terrifying resolve, moving like a half remembered nightmare. It’s playful and intimidating, often at the same time.
This inability to hold a moment is also Decker’s biggest problem. She seems incapable of sticking to one mood, intent on showcasing the full cabinet of ideas that pours forth onto the screen. It’s the mark of an intriguing voice that lacks focus and maturity, but there’s more than enough quality to suggest she’s worth following in the future.
Having skipped all over the place in the brisk hour and a quarter running time, the spinning bottle finally comes to rest on a chillingly violent finish. Decker demonstrates that nothing burns quite like desire and, when the smoke clears, boy does it leave a mark.