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Barbet Schroeder has always been interested in human obsessions and the dynamic of relationships, but when he got the idea to make Maîtresse he added something rather strange: Comedy. If you have never seen his infamous 1975 film, you should be aware of several things prior to watching it. The first of which is that this is essentially a very dark comedy about an unlikely love between a professional Dominatrix and a somewhat dim-witted would-be-thug.  The second is that it is probably the closest a film has come to capturing the true idea of BDSM as something more than a simple desire — for Ariane (Bulle Ogier) and her clients, it is a true obsession. While she might attempt to keep her professional life hidden in the strange world isolated in a cloistered series of rooms beneath her apartment, it becomes clear that this world is more than a way to earn money. Elements of her sadism have already worked their way into her sunny world.

Stylish lady with some secrets... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Stylish lady with some secrets…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Like her clients, this is an obsession meant to be hidden from the rest of the world to see. The third is that Maîtresse is a very graphic film. This is not a movie for the faint of heart. The final and most important general statement about Maîtresse is that it is a highly artistic and well-crafted film. While it does not deserve to be listed or thought of as Shock Cinema, it is a most certainly highly provocative work. Schroeder is an intellectually restrained artist, but he is most certainly putting himself in the role of provocateur when it comes to this unforgettable and odd movie.

When Barbet Schroeder began production of Maîtresse in 1974 he knew he was creating a provocative film, but he had no idea just how difficult it would be to secure distribution in 1975. It would be more than a couple of years before this infamous film would be seen much at all. The film was essentially banned and censored for over six years after the initial debut. The UK would prove the toughest nut to crack. Interestingly it was not so much due to the exploration into the world of a French Dominatrix which included graphic depictions of BDSM activities, nor was it actually due to anything tied up in fetish and kink and it certainly wasn’t the horrific visit to a Paris horse meat slaughterhouse. The bottomline reason Schroeder’s film was refused release into the UK was because it featured the back view of a vulva.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975

To give the British Board of Film Classification their due — they were smart enough to actually state that the film’s refusal was related to the “excessive” degrees of fetishism. The real reason BBFC denied release to the film was not because a person was being whipped, it was because the audience could see her vulva. The board did not mind that the audience could see a penis being severely mistreated. They were upset that the man seemed to enjoy having his genitals mistreated.

Maîtresse was screened and received a limited release in the US. The distributor assigned the film an X-rating on its own. So limited was the release that very few film critics actually reviewed it. The New York Times quite liked it. But the film became notorious with relatively few people having ever actually seen it. That all changed when The Criterion Collection remastered and released it to DVD in 2004.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Criterion Collection, 2004

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Criterion Collection, 2004

While the uncensored theatrical cut of Maîtresse had been released to the UK via DVD starting in 2003, the transfers were not solid. Under their Flipside Editions, The British Film Institute released it to Blu-ray in 2012. Blu quality enhanced, the BFI release is actually superior to the Criterion Collection pressing. There has been some very loose rumors that Criterion may give the film another image/sound boost to re-issue to Blu-ray, but it is rather unlikely. The film’s graphic scene filmed in an actual horse slaughterhouse is truly horrific to watch. This scene is most likely intended to act as a sort of metaphor for a powerful beast being reduced to a powerless victim ultimately utilized as food. The scene arrives in the story when the leading man is feeling powerless and emasculated.

Even playing "footsie" takes a turn... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Even playing “footsie” takes a turn…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Note: Even by 1975 horse meat had already become a taboo form of food in more than a couple of countries. However it should be noted that while it has dramatically shifted away from favor, there are still butcher shops in France specifically reserved for the sale of this meat. All the same this is an alarming scene that will most likely put off a good number of people. As an FYI, Schroeder’s use of the footage is almost tame when compared to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s use of Goethe recitation as the audience is led through the horrors of a slaughterhouse in 1978’s In a Year of 13 Moons. Fassbinder employed this form of human brutality to create a metaphor for fascism and despair. Unlike Schroeder’s movie,  Fassbinder’s film is not even remotely a comedy. Still both films carry a repugnant reputation for screening graphic screening of animal slaughter. Consider yourself warned.

All the same, it is annoying that the Criterion transfer is inferior to the one released by BFI Flipside Edition.

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer. Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 BFI Flipside, 2012

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer.
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
BFI Flipside, 2012

While one might expect a 1975 French film to be dated, it really isn’t. Even the clothing is not particularly 1970’s tacky. Let’s not forget that Karl Lagerfeld was in charge of costume design. …And the line between S&M to Lagerfeld is fairly short in distance.

And speaking of Sadomasochism, Maîtresse is one of the few films to actually craft a realistic depiction of this subculture. While many speak of Sadomasochism, the reality is that a true Sadist is not going to derive much pleasure from role-play. And while one might think of a Masochist as passive or willing victim, the true master of S&M role-play is always the Masochist. In other words, there is a very dark side to the games that many adults play. In Maîtresse the role playing is most definitely in action, but the games are being played with the rules loose and usually hidden. During the first half of the film it would appear that  Ariane takes no particular pleasure in what she does in the lair beneath her bright apartment, but Schroeder slowly begins to reveal aspects of her true nature as the film moves forward.

Going down below to a domestic torture garden... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Going down below to a domestic torture garden…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Ariane seems to take true delight in feeding a collection of venus fly trap plants. Her high-scale bathtub has been crafted to include a bottom chamber that she has filled with water snakes or eels who feed off small fish which she her maid/assistant pours into the mix. And of course as the battle of the sexes ensues we see examples of her need to remain firmly in the position of dominance.

Tighten up the gimp... Bulle Ogier & Client Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tighten up the gimp…
Bulle Ogier & Client
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The film’s perspective belongs to leading man of the story. Gérard Depardieu’s Olivier appears to be a harmless sort of guy, but it only takes a small opportunity and he is ready to take up the grift as burglar. And it only takes another moment or two before we realize that this burly young man is a criminal. The film’s plot begins as Olivier and a pal break into what they think is an empty Parisian apartment. Like voyeurs, we follow these knuckleheads into a creepy dark space. With only a flashlight to provide limited perspective, we understand within a few seconds that this is no ordinary apartment. The small light reveals gimp masks, gas masks, latex & rubber suits, a hanging noose, a sinister looking dental chair, something like a torture rack, loads of odd surgical type equipment, dildos, baby bottles, diapers, a wide variety of torture tools and a terrified naked man shivering in a dog pen.  This might all read a bit funnier than it is. I first saw this movie in Cambridge back in the 1990’s and it was and remains a genuinely creepy opening sequence. Soon these two thugs find themselves handcuffed together and to a radiator as Bulle Ogier’s Ariane tends to her clients.

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

This is a filmmaker’s movie. Gerard Depardieu is well cast in the type of role for which he was best known in his youth — a sort of primally sexy gentle giant. It is really through Olivier‘s eyes that the audience sees the film. While this man is far from innocent, he clearly has no understanding of the world to which he has entered. But it is both comical and interesting that he finds himself deeply attracted to Ariane. His desire for her begins as she one-up’s both he and his pal by managing to cuff them together with no hope of escape. His attraction only builds as she offers him a chance to make some money and leads him further into the dark corners of her domestic torture garden. As they approach a man dressed in female bondage gear, she demands that the client get on all fours. She straddles him and positions Olivier directly in front of the masochist’s face. Olivier looks more curious than shocked. She unzips her burglar’s fly, pulls out his penis and demands that he urinate in the client’s face. Olivier‘s eyes never leave those of Ariane. As we hear the urine release he shares a passionate kiss with her. Suddenly this brute of a man is in love.

And now we begin your punishment... A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

And now we begin your punishment…
A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

After a night of what appears to be romance funded by Ariane, the two lie in bed. There are no professions of love, but it is clear it is there. Schroeder’s screenplay and Bulle Ogier’s careful performance require no words for the audience to understand that much of her attraction / fondness for Olivier is grounded in his mix of dull intellect, brutish but placid assertions of dominance. Of course the deal-sealer for Ariane is that this man is unabashedly almost worshiping in his adoration. There is also no need for discussion regarding Olivier‘s confusion regarding the downstairs world of his love’s professional life. All Depardieu need to do is offer a glance and we know that he is even more confused than those of us in the audience.

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment...

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment… Bulls Ogier / Wealthy Clients / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When Ariane essentially tricks him into visiting a friend in the country, he has no idea that she is leading him into a Dominatrix scenario involving a group of wealthy devotees. Confused, unsure and fearful of being judged as less than a man Olivier agreed to remove his belt and whip the pretty and only female player in the chateau. It is clear that he simply does not understand why a tough whipping would provide pleasure. Eager to demonstrate his abilities to his new lover, he opts to softly tease the masochist’s vulva. Of course this only demonstrates his misunderstanding of this type of desire. The wealthy clients are amused as is Ariane. But Olivier and the audience are confused and worried that he is being used and reduced to some sort of walking joke.

When I saw Maîtresse for the first time back in the 1990’s I had been informed that it was a dark comedy. At this time it was hard for me to accept it as comedy. It seemed to me that the film was aiming far deeper than one anticipates from the genre. Despite my own desire to interpret the movie in a different way there were elements that simply did not seem to fit the action on the screen.

Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified...

Néstor Almendros captures our Mistress in perfect frame to emerge with a halo for the man who will become obsessed. Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified… Bulls Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Carlos D’Alessio’s musical score seemed odd. It is a rather charming bit of work that never fits into the world we and Olivier are exploring. In addition some of the darkest moments contained within the movie have no musical accompaniment. Seeing the film again after it had been added to The Criterion Collection, the comedy of Maîtresse hit me. Certainly not a comic experience that generates laughs as much as amusement — this is more a sense of bemusement. This is, of course, a French film. I love French cinema, but no one else presents comedy quite like the French. This level of dark comedy or comédie de l’ cruels has become more familiar outside of French cinema in the past decade. John Magary’s recent brilliant independent American film, The Mend, presents an incisive and rage-filled study of two brothers as the sort of dark comedy one might expect from France. Serious studies of humanity taking a turn toward the comical is not so odd to most of us anymore. Despite all of the transgressions and darker elements of identity, Maîtresse is most certainly a comedy.

Watching love's persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend.

Watching love’s persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend. Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

A key to understanding Maîtresse is to know that nothing we see is eroticized. This is not an erotic film.

When we are given glimpses into the Maitresse’s world of punishment and humiliation it is either directly related to Olivier‘s sneaking around peaking or listening. Schroeder spent a good deal of time researching the subject matter of the film as he felt no connection to the world of S&M. Much of Bulle Ogier’s character is based on an actual dominatrix. He gained her trust and she agreed to allow she and several of her clients to be used in the film itself. Long before the idea of digital effects existed, Schroeder carefully placed the actual dominatrix in relation to his actress/wife’s positions. The actual members of the 1970’s Parisian BDSM Underground wear masks to protect their identity, but they are willfully accepting their mistresses’ punishments. All is filmed to make it look as if Ogier is the one applying nails, needles and other manipulations. Filmed without typical movie lighting or other stylings, these transgressive acts are presented with only the sounds that were occurring at the time of filming. The result is often jarring and more than a little shocking, but never eroticized.

Nothing is ever explained beyond the most limited of discussion. Like Olivier, we are left with only what we see and might already understand separate from the film. Unlike Olivier, we are hopefully not quite so simple in our thinking and reasoning. And let’s hope we are not male chauvinist pigs. Olivier has a deep-seated need to dominate his woman. Having grown into a world of cruelty and crime, he has no trouble formulating the idea that his girl is a prostitute in need of a strong pimp. He wants the role of her pimp. And he wants to find a way to help her earn even more money. Because it is all about money. Right?!? 

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it... Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it…
Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tragically for Olivier, he is unable to grasp that Ariane needs no protecting and certainly no pimp. Ariane never states an opinion, but it is clear that she does not identify as a prostitute and would never even consider the idea of pimp in her existence. As Olivier becomes more and more obsessed with understanding what Ariane does and why people pay her to do it — he becomes even more determined to know all of her secrets. The identity of a certain person constantly being mentioned in relation to money either with her maid or on one of her two phones consumes Olivier.

It is at this point of the story that we fully begin to understand the depth of Ariane‘s own perverse sadistic urges. It would not take much for her to simply explain it all to Olivier, but she has far too much fun watching him struggle for his grounding and fret over the details of her life.

Even when Olivier’s tendencies toward domestic abuse begin to flare up, she maintains her sense of control.

He's just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now?

He’s just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now? Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When he puts his huge hands around her slender throat she plays it off as if a game. Poor Olivier doesn’t even pick up that he has failed to scare her. Later when he finally pushes things too far and our Maîtresse has had enough, she head-butts Olivier so hard blood begins to pour from his nose. Clearly shocked by her strength, his reaction is to attempt to warn Ariane that she too has been harmed. He is concerned. Ariane is unbothered by the self-damage inflicted by her head-butting. She is seething with anger.

It is the dim-witted Olivier who is emotionally crushed. This is not the first time we have seen this rough and huge man fall to pieces over his girl.  Control and cruelty are needs and that refuse to stay in that dark cave of torture secretly adjoined to her private home. These needs are not being fully satisfied by respecting most of her clients’ wishes and safe words. A Sadist wants real control and a victim. She is happy to play along with Olivier‘s limited view of women for the pleasure his pain provides.

She may look the part of angel, but this aspect is in appearance only.

Another key scene involves some personal and rather rough role-play between Ariane and Olivier. Schroeder wisely shoots this scene in a particularly ambiguous way. It looks like a violent public fight between the two characters as reality with the looming threat of rape. When the two end up in a garden shed of an elderly woman we hear Ariane‘s screams. As the poor old woman rushes to come to the aide of the petit blond woman, Olivier emerges with a switchblade pointed to kill. When Ariane walks out of the shed she is still pulling up her skirt. We might expect that she would feel empathy for the elder woman, but instead she merely leans into Olivier and mockingly suggests he leave the poor “old dear” alone. She skips away without even waiting to see what Olivier might do.

We never actually  know if this was a bit of role-playing or a real scenario that Ariane has manifested / navigated for some sadistic fun.

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man. Bulle Ogier  Maîtresse  Barbet Schroeder, 1975  Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man.
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Despite the dark elements of the on-screen actions, this is a story about the battle of the sexes. It is also an odd 1970’s twist on Feminisim. The key word here is “odd.” In many ways it almost seems a mistake that Barbet Schroeder opted to sculpt a very twisted romantic comedy from the BDSM clay of his story. There are so many aspects of Bulle Ogier’s Ariane it seems a bit of a waste of a great actress that she is unable to explore them. As I’ve stated several times, not much is ever explained about the title character.

Forever lingering with mystery...

Forever lingering with mystery… Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The subplot of Ariane‘s situation is only mentioned in passing. I’m not sure I even fully noticed it upon my first viewing some 20 years ago, but it is wrought with dramatic potential. La Maîtresse is the mother of an elementary school age child.  An older gentleman (who may or may not be the child’s father) appears to have taken custody of the child. We may not know the full story here, but it would appear that Ariane is fine with this arrangement and most likely has intended it to be this way. When we see her with her child she clearly feels a stronger bond to her Doberman Pinscher. A beloved pet she has named Texas and claims to have trained to kill upon demand. We do not know if this is true, but it seems likely to be an accurate claim. Her young son appears to attempt to gain his mother’s attention, but Ariane is far more interested with Texas. When the boy walks off with his guardian/father, Ariane appears bored, but fixated on the dog. We never learn the name of her son, but she is more than happy to sneak away and join Olivier on a very strange drive in which the battle for power takes a surprising turn.

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?!

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?! Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse is an uncomplicated film about some very complicated people. The choice to keep it unexplained and unexplored is intentional. And as it turns out this was a very clever and wise decision. Maîtresse pulls us in just deep enough to make us squirm but never so far out that we need to grasp for air. It also prevents the film from slipping into a psychological realm that would ultimately prove disappointing.

Why?

Well sometimes life’s complications and the obsessions to which it leads are too murky to actually articulate.

Matty Stanfield, 1.28.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was once a time when Madonna presented ideas far deeper than that of “Pop Star.” While those days seem to have past, many of the ideas she presented and asserted remain.

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner's insightful novel for the screen. Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård The Diary of a Teenage Girl Marielle Heller, 2015 Photograph | Sam Emerson

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s insightful novel for the screen.
Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Marielle Heller, 2015
Photograph | Sam Emerson

One of the last times I recall finding myself thinking about something she co-created was her 2000 single:

“Skin that shows in patches.
Strong inside but you don’t know it.

Good little girls they never show it.
When you open up your mouth to speak, could you be a little weak?

Do you know what it feels like for a girl?
Do you know what it feels like in this world…” — Madonna

Aside from being catchy, this pop song did elevate itself more than a little by what it had to say about the ever-mounting challenges and societal/cultural indifference and injustices perpetuated against and projected upon the idea of female identity. Sadly, the iconic superstar chose to have her then filmmaker husband create the song’s vid-clip. The video for this song was crass and violent for reasons of shock-value vs. offering any level of content truly relevant toward a song that seemed tied to a young woman attempting to indicate the cruel patriarchal views to a young male. A missed opportunity to say the least.

Marguerite Duras' novel about a young woman's sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard. Jane March / Tony Leung The Lover Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992 Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

Marguerite Duras’ novel about a young woman’s sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard.
Jane March / Tony Ka Fai Leung
The Lover
Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992
Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

It has taken a tragic and centuries long tyranny for women to finally make significant strides in the areas of filmmaking. Such recently formed groups like The Alliance for Women in Media have smartly utilized social media to promote, promote and organize female film artists. While the idea of the female filmmaker is not at all new, the voices of these film artists that have managed to gain attention are painfully few. Those voices that have managed to obtain success have largely been built on celebrity [think Nora Ephron, Julie Delpy, Barbra Streisand, Penny Marshall, Elaine May, Susan Sideman, Anne Fontaine, Diane Keaton or Kathryn Bigelow] or controversial films that were either too scandalous or provocative [think Claire Denis, Lina Wertmüller, Patty Jenkins, Liliana Cavani, Lynne Ramsay, Mary Harron, Mia Hansen-Løve, Doris Dörrie or Catherine Breillat] to be ignored.

Note: this statement and the listed artists is not intended toward the quality of work or respective importance. However significant gains have been made in just the last ten years.

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King SELMA Ava DuVernay, 2014 Cinematography | Bradford Young

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director.
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
SELMA
Ava DuVernay, 2014
Cinematography | Bradford Young

As Film Art moves forward we will be given more opportunities to see female characters written and presented by women. It is interesting to experience the “knee-jerk” reaction of fellow cinephiles when I bring this up. It seems that the majority of people seem to feel it is not all that important or different to have a female vs. male filmmaker. From a technical proficiency standpoint it really does not make a difference. However, good luck at convincing most Big Money producers or film studios that there isn’t. The shift in this perspective is resulting from peer and societal pressures. Sexism and Racism still run the show, but this might be changing. What interests me is seeing how a female filmmaker might be able to bring a more balanced depiction of female characters and their situations.

A great deal more than "a sex comedy" that the film's marketing team led us to believe. Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film. Afternoon Delight Jill Soloway, 2013 Cinematography | Jim Frohna

A great deal more than “a sex comedy” that the film’s marketing team led us to believe.
Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film.
Afternoon Delight
Jill Soloway, 2013
Cinematography | Jim Frohna

Would Ava DuVernay’s Selma have been different if it had been made by a man? A white woman? I suspect so, but Selma was crafted with such a steadfast and sure handed — it is hard to say. Would Jill Soloway’s under-appreciated Afternoon Delight have been different if it had been written/directed by a male filmmaker? I’d say most certainly so. Would Diary of a Teenage Girl have presented themes of sexuality and identity have been handled in a different manner by a male? Would Mia’s frustrations, anger and sexual awakening been explored differently if a man had directed Andrea Arnold’s screenplay for Fish Tank? I’d say most definitely. Or what if we stop and imagine what might have happened if Lynne Ramsay’s husband, Rory Stewart Kenner, had directed their screenplay adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin? Would Michelle Williams’ Margot had received a more typical level of exploration had Sarah Polley not written and directed Take This Waltz? Would a male director had handled Father of My Children in the same way that Mia Hansen-Løve so grimly caring as she was able?

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate. Katie Jarvis Fish Tank Andrea Arnold, 2009 Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate.
Katie Jarvis
Fish Tank
Andrea Arnold, 2009
Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

If we think back to some of the more controversial European films of the past 50 years it brings up an even stronger concern. Imagine if Pier Paolo Pasolini had directed Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter? …A film that still makes both female and male audiences squirm some 40+ years after it was originally released. Try to imagine if Jacques Audiard had directed Claire Denis’ White Material. Actually this might be the true exception to the rule. I do not think there are any filmmakers who think and film anywhere near to the manner in which Denis approaches her distinctive and intimate films.

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working -- who happens to be a woman. Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley FUNNY BUNNY Alison Bagnall, 2015 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working — who happens to be a woman.
Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley
FUNNY BUNNY
Alison Bagnall, 2015
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Even so, just think what might have happened. A similar exception might rule for both Catherine Breillat and Josephine Decker — both of whom seem to have a very unique and intimate connection to their work. Decker’s voice is still taking form and I think we are approaching an era where it will be allowed to do just that. The same did not happen for the likes of Claudia Weill and Elaine May. Two incredibly gifted artists who had the unluck of making a flop each. Male filmmakers can make a flop movie and move on, the same has not been true for women.

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May's directorial career to an abrupt end. Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty ISHTAR Elaine May, 1987 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May’s directorial career to an abrupt end.
Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty
ISHTAR
Elaine May, 1987
Cinematography |Vittorio Storaro

An even more vexing concern for female artists comes up when we do think of all the inaccuracies of treatment for male filmmakers vs. female directors. Men can misbehave. Does anyone out there think that a female artist would have been allowed to put a cast / crew through emotional tantrums thrown by David O. Russell during the making of I Heart Huckabees? You are living in a make believe reality if you do. You would also be in an equally confused reality if you think a male PEO could have gotten away with this behavior on a Hollywood set. Ironically, the artist who paid the price for Mr. Russell’s bizarre behavior ended up being an innocent bystander. Unlike her co-stars, Isabelle Huppert and Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin refused to sit quietly while Russell blasted them with unprofessional rage-fueled insults.

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.  Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin I Heart Huckabees David O. Russell, 2004 Cinematography | Peter Deming

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.
Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin
I Heart Huckabees
David O. Russell, 2004
Cinematography | Peter Deming

It was as if the highly respected and skilled actress had made a grave error against Hollywood’s Good ‘Ol Boy Club when she dared to respond to her director’s cruelty. Ms. Tomlin’s film career suffered a great deal due because she was unwilling to sit passively and suffer the indignity of O’Russell’s tyranny. This sad result of a YouTube leak has been little discussed. David O. Russell had already come to blows with George Clooney a few years earlier. Clooney seemed to earn “respect points” for standing up to the bullying. Tomlin did not fare as well. She was largely relegated to playing nightclub gigs. It would take more than a couple of years before she found worthy television / film prospects. Yet David O. Russell continued to excel up The Hollywood Food Chain despite not only his behavior but the box office fail of I Heart Huckabees.

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.  Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.
Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

However, I’ve gone way off point here. There are a slew of amazing films dealing with the psychology of women. Films that are rightly revered and studied. In no way would I want to discount these films, but it is interesting to think about them from the perspective that they were imagined, written and directed by men. Are these depictions any less valid because women were relegated to the role of “actor” vs. creator of these unforgettable cinematic masterpieces? It is an interesting talking point.

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.  Julianne Moore SAFE Todd Haynes, 1995 Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.
Julianne Moore
SAFE
Todd Haynes, 1995
Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

I was recently thinking of four films in particular. I don’t pretend to know the full answer to this hind-sighted reflection. For starters I am not a filmmaker, but most importantly I am a white male. These films were made by professional filmmakers — all of whom were white men.

Millie aims for perfection within a man's nightmare... Shelley Duvall  3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Millie aims for perfection within a man’s nightmare…
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The first film that crosses my mind regarding this line of questioning is one of my personal favorite movies: Robert Altman’s 3 Women. I’m not sure this is a good film to discuss in this vein as the entire film can be ascribed to dream-logic. Altman never made it a secret that the entire film was born of a personal nightmare. It is also no secret that this incredible examination of identity and surrealism was largely formed by the participation of all three actors in the title roles. This is most particularly true of Shelley Duvall.

The battle for identity... Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The battle for identity…
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Almost all of the film’s trajectories emanate from Duvall’s Millie‘s actions. Another aspect of this film that more or less eliminates it from this topic is the fact that the entire film does feel like a manifestation of male-based fears about women. This is not to say that 3 Women is not a fully potent vision of identity horror, but it does not actually seem to present itself entirely based female psychology. This wildly experimental dark comedy morphs into one of the more disturbing films you are likely to see. It is full of female energy, but it never feels as if it is trying to make a statement about anything other than these three very specific three female characters.

The second film I think of this respect is a more likely candidate for this type of analysis: John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Experiencing a John Cassavetes film often leads the viewer to the mistaken idea that every aspect of what is being seen is an improvised experimental film. This is never the case.

A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974

A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974

Cassavetes was an articulate film writer as well as director. He had a very specific story to tell and he told it in his unique visionary way. Certainly not one to run from collaboration and open to ideas — he was nearly always set on how and what he wanted his films to say. He was blessed to share his life with one of the most important film actors to ever breathe, Gena Rowlands. However it is a major mistake to think that as Mabel, Rowlands was free-forming her dialog as she went along. It is both to her credit as an actor and her husband’s credit as a filmmaker that it feels that way. Even Rowlands’s Mabel odd and/or quirky hand gestures and ticks were already thought out in the filmmaker’s head. Do a Google and you will find images of Cassavetes acting out the hand movements and gestures for Rowlands to incorporate into her performance. It is also somewhat crucial to remember that Cassavetes main interest in his film storytelling was the pursuit of love. Yet it would seem difficult for even this great filmmaker to not note that there was something removed from that going on here.

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.  A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.
A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

A Woman Under the Influence works on all levels and remains a fascinating and deeply disturbing screen capture of a woman in full-tilt emotional breakdown. How or if she is full able to “heal” and return to life is more than a little ambiguous. What is clear in the film is that she is loved and loves, but this might not be enough for her to survive the life in which she has found herself. And this is one of the primary reasons this 1974 film continues to feel alive and real. The hair styles, the decor, the cars and clothing may all be dated — but the situations all feel profoundly current.

Mabel is not well. She is losing her grip on sanity. Something that the film never bluntly states but shows is that she is also deteriorating in imposed isolation, loneliness and suffocating within what begins to feel like a sort of familial pathology. The Longhetti Family is not well. The working-class husband / father is over-worked and seems more than a little under-educated. With the exception of a paycheck, he seems to leave all other responsibilities to his wife, Mabel. She is left alone with three children in a sort of lower-middle class hell.

"All of a sudden, I miss everyone..." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

“All of a sudden, I miss everyone…”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

She loves and adores her children, but they are all she has in the way of connection to the world. She may or may not be a bit smarter than her husband, but it does not really matter. We can see that she is overwhelmed. We can also see that her husband hasn’t a clue as to why or how to help her. He takes to what can only be described as domestic abuse toward his wife. He ultimately pulls his children into emotionally-damaging situations and allows indulgences into inappropriate behavior as a father. Mabel may not be a reliable parent, but she seems to be trying harder to set a better example than her husband. The 21st Century reaction to Peter Falk’s Nick is to take offense and become angry. However his performance and the film itself is so stunningly human, it is almost impossible to dislike Nick. We know he cares and is simply lost. The resulting film is powerful, sad and oddly inspiring in that it offers us a bit of hope for this woman.

When film acting no longer feels like "fiction." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

When film acting no longer feels like “fiction.”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

There was and will only ever be one John Cassavetes. A Woman Under the Influence is cinematic masterwork from every angle.

But have you ever wondered what this movie might have been like if a woman had directed it?

Would we be given a bit more information regarding those gestures or movements to understand the pressures of both the inner and outer worlds of Mabel? Would Nick have had more room to understand or even less? Would he have become a savior or more of a victimizer? When it comes to A Woman Under the Influence, one thing that was discussed when it was first released has come much more clearly to the forefront with the passage of time: there is an idea presented which is far less ambiguous today as was back in the 1970s. As viewers we do not really know if it is Mabel who is having the real problem here. Mabel appears to be more a victim of circumstance than one of mental illness. Is The Woman ill or is she simply a experiencing the logical result of a life so severely limited and oppressed? Perhaps it is Nick who really needs help. Mabel just might need to demand more freedom or walk away. Would the entire situation of this family be illuminated in a different way had it been in the hands of female filmmaker? Honestly, I’m not sure I really want to know…

The female psyche deconstructed... PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The female psyche deconstructed…
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The third and final film is also one of the greatest films ever made. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is a milestone work of art for more reasons than I’d be comfortable attempting to articulate. This largely experimental film is less about the core of Human Identity as it is about the twisted manipulation of identity by one of the two female characters. Bibi Andersson plays Alma. A young and inexperienced Psych Nurse assigned the task of caring for a highly respected stage and film actress played with equal mastery by Liv Ullmann. This is a Surrealist take on human cruelty and ideas of identity. It is also female-centric. Yet as much as it is concerned with female psychology, it is equally concerned with experimenting against the normal conventions of cinematic storytelling. Ingmar Bergman and his legendary cinematographer, Sven Nyqvist are both concerned with conveying ideas through image and editing even more than what the two actors present through performance and dialogue.

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?  Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?
Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We see both women react to their respective worlds and situations. Soon enough we see them react to each other. In uncomfortable silence as her patient has withdrawn from speech and human contact, Alma begins to find herself in the unique position in having a person of note who serves as her private audience. She begins to share her deepest and most intimate secrets to her Elisbet. One doesn’t need a degree in psychology to realize that Liv Ullmann’s character is somehow using her nurse for her own perverse needs and pleasures. We might think that it is the patient who is falling apart, but viewers quickly realize that the character who truly comes to the end of her mental and emotional rope is the nurse.

Silent prey or captive audience?  Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson  PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Silent prey or captive audience?
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

One of the splinters the film that makes is truly jolting, but it is never fully clear as to why. Was this always going to happen or has Ullmann’s Elisabet pushing buttons and limits for her own sick gain? I suspect most of us would agree that this revolutionary bit of filmmaking is at least a partial off-spring from Freudian thought. In fact, it seems that Bergman was playing off Freud’s idea of both primary and normal narcissism. Persona almost seems to be constructing itself off Freud’s self-titled definitions of Demential Praecox and Paraphrenics (sp?) — Elisabet appears to an off-shoot example of Schizophrenia who is incapable of love or loving. Alma is the hysterical woman unable to escape the grasp of a sociopathic woman hellbent on ruining her. It would be irresponsible and lazy to dismiss Persona on sexist grounds as it comes from a very specific point in time and achieved a whole new sort of cinematic language. Persona is still a gut punch to the senses. In many ways, Ingmar Bergman’s film remains ahead of time. However it is firmly grounded in the world of Art Horror or Psychological Thriller. It is not and can’t be weakened by ideas that we now might deem as outmoded.

But it does beg a bit of examination regarding the ways in which Bergman crafted his two female characters? It is possibly unnecessary, but curious to wonder what a female film artist might have done with the ideas of female human beings in this situation. Would a female or a Feminist-perspective have changed this film for the different or better? Would Alma‘s memory of her sexual exploit be articulated differently? Would Elisabet‘s reactions and actions have been different? Would a sickly little boy reach out for the female faces or would he be replaced by a little girl? Would a female perspective lead us further than Bergman’s conclusion?

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act... Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act…
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Would it all still break the film strip?

Perhaps of all male filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman was the most interested in female-centric movies. He is not alone. Paul Mazursky, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Woody Allen and David Lynch are just a few of the white male filmmakers who pursue the stories and even the POV of female characters. Much of their work feels right, but how to know? Can a man really ever know what it feels like for a girl?

Or perhaps more on point: can a male film artist really ever know what it is like to be a woman? …much less even partially understand what it is like to be in her head?

Judging by many films, it would seem more than a little possible.

Intent to harm or heal? Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Intent to harm or heal?
Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We have yet to have an equal opportunity to experience female film art perspective in equal measure. Let’s hope that we see and hear more from Female Film Artists and Women In Media as we move forward.  It has never been more important to support films made by women and people of color.

Aren’t we all pretty much bored with seeing the vast majority of movies limited to the white male perspective?

Matty Stanfiled, 1.19.2016

 

The first time I noticed Josephine Decker was when she appeared as an actor in Joe Swanberg’s 2011 film, Uncle Kent.  It is a great film and it gained a great deal as soon as Decker walked into Swanberg’s frame. Realistic, casually beautiful and charismatic — Josephine Decker made an impression.

Artist, Josephine Decker. Image from project for The School of Making and Thinking with Adriana Disman

Artist, Josephine Decker. Image from project for The School of Making and Thinking with Adriana Disman

It didn’t take me long to discover her first documentary feature, 2008’s Bi the Way (co-directed with Brittany Blockman) and her solo documentary, 2010’s Squeezebox.  She went on to act in two more Swanberg projects in 2011. Not to mention that she also created a video for Charlie Hewson’s song, Where Are You Going, Elena? which incorporated animation by Matt Monson. But it was in her 2012’s Me the Terrible short, that seems to have actually begin to find her unique cinematic voice.

Me the Terrible by Josephine Decker, 2012. A determined little girl pirate sets out to conquer NYC!

Me the Terrible by Josephine Decker, 2012. A determined little girl pirate sets out to conquer NYC!

When I first saw Josephine Decker’s first feature length film, 2013’s Butter on the Latch, it wasn’t just revelatory — it was a metaphorically saturating adventure from which presented me with a challenge to reorient myself to step out of the theater and back into the remainder of the day. Emerging out of a sort of dazed state and gradually regaining my grounding, this potent film gave me more than a fair share of food for thought. It haunted me. It would take another viewing — this time on a big screen television — before I could allow myself to grasp what Butter on the Latch was actually about. That statement is not intended to be taken as a negative, but a very positive statement regarding a layered and challenging example of Film Art at it’s most experimental. Over a year later I had the opportunity to see her next film and my initial opinion of this filmmaker’s work felt validated.

Josephine Decker’s two films are more of a “cinematic experience” than simply getting lost in a movie’s narrative or style. Once these two films start, you have no choice but to enter Decker’s worlds. I find both films to be equally hypnotic in their ability to pull me in.

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch offers a unique perspective regarding the ways society, culture, folklore, music, dance, singing, desire and creativity impact not only a friendship but the formation of identity. It would be far too easy to call the film an adventure into the psyche of friendship or an emotional break. I also find comparisons of her work to that of David Lynch almost offensive. Thanks to what appears to be an artistically shared aesthetic with her cinematographer, Ashley Connor, Decker skillfully creates a world that sometimes looks and seems “real” — but is ultimately shifted into a disarmingly “unreal” space.

Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker: 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker: 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

For me, the plot of Butter on the Latch is secondary to the way Decker constructs the world in which it evolves. For a film that runs under 80 minutes in length, the movie itself feels far shorter.  That is a rare occurrence. In the last decade or so we have seen average film lengths span far longer than necessary. Challenging and artistic cinematic work normally requires patience from the audience. Josephine Decker’s film is never rushed or slow in pace. Intensity and intimacy are so cleverly fueled throughout the movie that she is often able to slow the pace without the audience noticing. Within only a few minutes, Butter on the Latch drops us into what is clearly NYC. Or, more probably Brooklyn. It is within those first few moments that a cleverly edited one-sided cell phone call conversation morphs this artistically thriving and socially active city into a sexually menacing and dangerously intense space. Then, without warning, we find ourselves on the road in what is clearly The Bay Area of Northern California.

Sarah Small walking into the familiar but losing the trail into the unknown aspects of nature and human connection. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small walking into the familiar but losing the trail into the unknown aspects of nature and human connection. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Although it is never clearly stated, it is clear from Decker’s use of POV that we are joining our protagonist into a beautiful space of a folk culture inspired festival and workshops. And while it is clear our two main characters are reuniting within the context of a communal event. This is a gathering to celebrate Balkan culture and folklore in what I suspect is the Mendocino Folklore Camp. Any known perceptions of this community are quickly challenged. Decker’s use of folklore, storytelling, ancient music and dance fuel the film forward into a world of dread and ever present threat that is hiding just a bit further into the woods of this mystical world.

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

When Sarah asks her friend, “Why aren’t you giving me any specifics?” — Isolde seems to either side-step or dismiss this question in a manner that simultaneously feels realistic and passively annoyed. There is a consistently odd mix of concern and indifference that puts not only Sarah, but us in the uncomfortable position of having to cautiously trust Isolde. As Sarah and Isolde attempt to re-connect Isolde shares a recent massage experience that is filled with erotic pleasure but veers so far into male domination / manipulation of Isolde’s body that her reason for sharing her experience almost seems that she is trying to eroticize a sexual violation. All the more alarming, she gives Sarah the name of the “masseur” and urges Sarah to seek the same experience.

"Oh, you know that place..." Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence in Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

“Oh, you know that place…”
Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence in Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

This brief interaction of two young women chatting feels “realistic” but loaded with subversive intent.  These two women appear to be fully empowered and sexually confident, but it is here that Decker’s film  twists conventional ideas around “girl’s talk” to pull us into an ever-growing threat of predatory dangers.

"What is that drink called again?" Isolde Chae-Lawrence drinks it all down in Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“What is that drink called again?” Isolde Chae-Lawrence drinks it all down in Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Decker’s masterful manipulation of surroundings of nature, music, dance, and Connor’s stunning cinematography in the editing process creates a tone that refuses to become official “Surreal” but is powerfully disorienting.  Josephine Decker creates a very specific world in order to pull us into a reworking of Balkan folklore. The actual shifting point comes quite early as both friends enter an almost hallucinatory state of drunken confusion. While it appears to a be shared journey into an ancient culture and self-awareness is largely Sarah’s lonely trek into unknown realms of nature and female humanity.

"I don't know where we're going." Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“I don’t know where we’re going.” Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

The deeper Sarah steps into understanding and mastering the Balkan manner of chanting and music to express the culture’s ancient folklore as a tool of connection to the past to form a shared experience in the present — the more feelings of desire, loneliness and isolation seem to mount. What is initially so beautiful is deconstructing into something laced with intensely with madness.

The menace of dark magik and madness are hiding the woods of Mendocino. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashely Connor

The menace of dark magik and madness are hiding the woods of Mendocino. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashely Connor

Sarah reads an example of Balkan Folklore about a young maiden who is stolen away by a dragon. To escape the dragon, the beautiful maiden concocts a magical potion which will force the powerful dragon into a deep sleep so that she can escape. It is read in a relaxed way with Sarah pointing to the charm of ancient stories. Isolde seems to be slipping into a deep slumber herself and mutters this will be her bedtime story. Later, a good-looking and gentle musician is spotted by Isolde. Sarah takes notice and is immediately attracted to him. Isolde dismisses the man’s appearance and conduct. Isolde appears to be upset, but fails to communicate it. Instead they both drink excessively. The two friends lose their way back to their cabin. Isolde seems to become more than frustrated with Sarah. Blaming her for getting them lost, she storms away into the darkness. Is Isolde angry because she is interested in a man? Or, is she angry because she blames Sarah for getting them lost? Is it jealousy? Is it frustration? Or, is Sarah just confused?  It is a point that is never really fully understood. But Sarah wakes the next morning in a panic. She seems to scramble to flee the cabin. It almost feels as if she is running away from something. After calming down, Sarah begins to proactively pursue the man, the tension mounts over the relationship between the two women. Or, does it?

Isolde Chae-Lawrence and Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker , 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Isolde Chae-Lawrence and Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker , 2013
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson flirt in Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson flirt in Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

Butter on the Latch Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Butter on the Latch
Josephine Decker, 2013
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

As tensions mount and Sarah’s advances toward the musician are reciprocated, Sarah’s perceptions start to become less trustworthy. There is a vague sense that she feels she is being pursued by something in the woods. Is it a dragon? Is it Isolde? Is it madness waiting out there? Has Sarah lost the ability to perceive the difference between reality and fantasy? Is she dealing with some sort of disorder? Fantasy Prone Personality, perhaps? Or is her paranoia real? Or is she simply worn out and lost in the mystical beauty of music and folklore?

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson at the lake. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson at the lake. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

When Sarah and the musician disrobe, the truly beautiful eroticism they start to share becomes foggy and takes a disturbing turn.  Sarah senses the presence of the threatening menace hiding just beyond her view in the trees. The film arrives to a disturbing conclusion that is vague. It is also a conclusion which is surprisingly satisfyingly. This is cinematic magic.

"What is that? Did you hear that?" Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“What is that? Did you hear that?” Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 Butter on the Latch is distinctively unique from every perspective. Most importantly, it is a fascinating experience that should not be missed. As good as it is, Josephine Decker’s evolution as a filmmaker progresses to a whole other level with her second feature length film, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

It is almost impossible to imagine the the budget for her second film was just over $18,000.00. There is nothing about Mild and Lovely that looks “micro-budget” — it has the polish and glow of major studio production. Any comparisons to major studio films ends there. Though Josephine Decker has stated that Steinbeck’s East of Eden influenced several elements of the movie, other critics have compared it to Flannery O’Connor and Terrence Malick. And of course, the sad state of Film Criticism / Film Theory that automatically point to David Lynch at the slightest hint of “something weird” or “stylistically perverse” — an over-used comparison. It is usually an incorrect comparison. I think it is particularly incorrect to compare this film to David Lynch. To be honest, I can only grasp a little bit in Mild and Lovely that might have been inspired by Steinbeck. If you were to pin me in a corner and demand a comparison, the only comparisons that might be valid would be Louis Malle’s Black Moon — a sluggish but lushly experiment in Surrealism as a statement of political unrest. Or maybe some elements employed by Roman Polanski in his adaptation of Roland Topor’s The Tenant. But this constant need to compare one artist to another is usually pointless. It is especially pointless in the case of Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.

Sophie Traub is Sarah in Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sophie Traub is Sarah in Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

One should not forget to remember that this film was made by a female artist and is largely concerned with a female character who serves as a sort of narrator throughout the movie. Josephine Decker continues her exploration of ideas nature and the role it plays in the ways humanity connects to form identity, family, lovers, community and often form into subcultures that oppose the way culture/society tries to pre-determine.  Once again, Josephine Decker displays an extraordinary way of taking the familiar and bends it all into something we have never seen before. Decker employees Ashley Connor’s beautifully lush off-kilter camera work along with unexpected POV’s, editing, sound and the fascinating charisma of her actors to form a more conventionally structured narrative than she presented in Butter on the Latch.

Decker has secured a group of more professionally skilled actors. While Sophie Traub is the least known actor involved, her performance is an exceptional display of technique. This actor knows what she is doing and brings Decker’s dialogue to life. Many of Sarah’s lines and actions could easily lead an actor toward cliche and even “camp” — Traub is so invested in her role that the deep-rooted sadness and damage find their way into every movement and glance. It is a nuanced portrait of an intelligent but stunted woman. Joe Swanberg, a visionary Independent Filmmaker and a capable actor succeeds in capturing a seemingly beaten-down and depressed man. He seems to want to hide not only the truth of his life, but his sexual impulses. Swanberg’s Akin is brooding a mixture of desire and violence that serves as an uncomfortable threat to both of the other characters.

Joe Swanberg in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker,2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Joe Swanberg in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker,2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

But viewer beware: there is nothing “conventional” about this film. But the most potent actor here is Robert Longstreet. Longstreet carries a great deal of “cred” within the Independent Filmmaking scene. His talent, abilities and charisma can’t be beat. As Jeremiah he presents an unsettling and often horrific performance. We are never fully allowed access the secret that bonds him so closely to Sarah, but thanks to Longstreet’s mix of amiable redneck and a consistently cruel tension — we know that the secret must be horrific. And, it is most likely still alive under the barn. Decker is joined by both David Barker and Steven Schardt as co-editors and the film’s pace and perspectives are even more effective here than in Butter on the Latch.

"My lover knows how to love me. But things kept getting in the way." Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“My lover knows how to love me. But things kept getting in the way.” Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is a fresh and constantly innovative take on the Modernist idea of American Gothic. Firmly rooted in Art Horror genre, there is a great deal more here than meets the eye or the expectations related to both of these styles. The film is structured by ever changing visual perspectives — often we see this world reflected from the perspective of animals on the farm. The world of this American farm is lensed from perspectives of  a goat, other times a dog or hog take over to provide our restricted view into the intimacies of the humans who are working and living within the confines of this world.

Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

The other narrative device Decker provides is Sarah’s voice reading her poetry. Sarah’s writing is fixated on her ideal lover. Cryptic and romantic, her free form poem carries us throughout the story. And once again, a familiar type of construction that becomes more insightful as we move forward. Sarah offers clues into not only her desires, but into her fractured view of her world. In many ways, she is still a child. But her sexual desires for Akin is almost boiling over. It is due to her stunted emotional development that she is often unaware of the way she presents herself to Akin. Like a child, she often appears to not understand when she exposes something sexual because one suspects no one has ever been there to guide her.

Dreams of Akin in Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014 Photography | Ashley Connor

Dreams of Akin in Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014
Photography | Ashley Connor

Prepping the lettuce. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Prepping the lettuce. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

In one of the film’s most disturbing moments, Sarah attempts to seduce Akin. Her mode of seduction is almost as unsettling as where it leads. Covered in mud and sweat, she pursues the opportunity to catch a frog after Akin admits to having a deep dislike of reptiles.

"Bad Froggie!" Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Owen

“Bad Froggie!” Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Owen

 

She plays with the frog in a childlike-sexual manner and without any warning she gleefully resorts to animal cruelty in hopes of attracting Akin. Just as unexpected, Akin does respond. But this is not lust or desire, this is rape. Akin assaults Sarah with cruel force. But the response of  his sexual violence appears to disappoint Akin as much as it unsettles the audience.

Perverse Seduction.  Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Perverse Seduction.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Brutal Response.  Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Brutal Response.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah’s perception of sex is either learned from the animalistic nature she has seen on Jeremiah’s farm or is alarming masochistic based on whatever secret has bound her to Jeremiah. While Sarah freely calls Jeremiah “Daddy” — it doesn’t take him long to inform Akin that he is not her father. Their are moments of what appears to be love between Jeremiah and Sarah, but never without an underlying tone of danger and doom.

Robert Longstreet and Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Robert Longstreet and Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Just as soon as you suspect you might have determined the ingredients of Josephine Deckers oddly beautiful but phantasmagorical brewing stew of human tragedy, she creatively throws us off-course. The truth of what may or may not be waiting beneath the barn remains unknown.

Thou Wast Mild & Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Thou Wast Mild & Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

This is film so comfortably committed to itself, it offers no easy “out” or clear conclusion. Its power will haunt you long after you experience it.

Joe Swanberg in Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Joe Swanberg in Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

The buttons have been pushed and the envelope has fallen off the desk, but it is impossible to look away or dismiss Thou Wast Wild and Lovely. Josephine Decker has crafted a world that pulls you in and holds you tight until the credits roll. The one thing that you can be sure of — there is no room for a “neutral” response to this film art. One will either love or hate it. I loved it.

Filmmaker Josephine Decker exploring the senses. Photograph | Adriana Disman from The School of Making and Thinking.

Filmmaker Josephine Decker exploring the senses. Photograph | Adriana Disman from The School of Making and Thinking.

I can’t wait to see what world she creates next.