This year’s Nashville Film Festival is featuring two feature films by buzz-magnet director Josephine Decker, and adventurous audiences should consider having a look. Along with her debut from last year, the enigmatically titled Butter on the Latch, the festival is screening her latest effort, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, fresh from its world premiere at the Berlinale this past February. What you’ll find is a sensibility firmly at odds even with conventional notions of art cinema vocabulary. But films this singular are guaranteed to wind their tendrils into the psyches of a select few, haunting them forever.
Butter on the Latch (7 p.m. April 19; also noon April 22) is a psychological character study, based in large part around documentary material Decker amassed during time at an Eastern European folk-music retreat in Mendocino, Calif. The thick smell of sweat and patchouli virtually wafts from the screen. Women in lace dresses chant, and Decker captures a particular moment in post-collegiate womanhood when freedom morphs into anxiety. Butter’s structure mirrors this uncertainty, with a vague, drifting attention, so when relationships hit a crisis point near the end, it feels a bit like a rush to make an open experience into a solid “work.”
Mild and Lovely (9:15 p.m. April 19; also 2:45 p.m. April 22) is far more directive in its approach, but no less bizarre. A freelance laborer (ubiquitous NaFF presence Joe Swanberg) takes a summer job with a farmer (Robert Longstreet) and his daughter Sara (Sophie Traub), and things soon begin to take a turn for the strange. Decker’s filmmaking style here is a bizarre mix of highbrow elegance and flatfooted kitsch, like an unholy union of Terrence Malick and Desert Hearts' Donna Deitch. Just as Butter eventually scans like a mumblecore riff on Bergman, Mild and Lovely seems at times like a parody of certain Hitchcockian themes. Decker makes ample use of Bernard Herrmann-esque music stings and a series of voyeuristic glares, many featuring cows. And her editing (especially in the oddly effective masturbation sequences) recalls classic Nicolas Roeg.
But there’s something frustrating about both of Decker’s films, as though she were mistaking a diffuse organization of sounds and images with experimentation, or structural meandering with a female-centered aesthetic. And very much like British genre-bender Ben Wheatley (A Field in England), Decker seems to be interested in using her considerable talents to dash expectations in the final lap, as if that were a virtue in itself.
I'm not quite certain Decker has arrived as a filmmaker. But these are highly original films, and well worth checking out.