Beginning life as a Kickstarter project and now playing in the Forum section of the 64th Berlinale, actress and director Josephine Decker presents her sophomore feature, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2012), starring regular collaborator Joe Swanberg alongside Robert Longstreet and Sophie Traub. We open to an uncomfortable scene of father and daughter Jeremiah (Longstreet) and Sarah (Traub) cackling wildly as they roll around in the grass, tossing a headless chicken at each other as the gruff patriarch growls, “eat your dinner”. This odd intro preempts the surreal tone that haunts the rest of the film’s narrative.
A triptych relationship is quickly established with the arrival of Akin (Swanberg), a farmhand who hides his wedding ring in the glove compartment of his car. It’s clear that Akin’s marriage is going through a rough patch, and before long his lustful eye falls upon the nymph-like Sarah – a child of nature, albeit a warped one. She’s a country girl that thrives off sensuality, longing to become a mother. One moment she’s caring for the livestock, humming away as she goes; the next she’s smiling with childlike glee at catching frogs in a nearby puddle before tearing off the amphibians’ head with her teeth. This shockingly graphic act is followed by a lustful, gruesome kiss with Akin and a consequent tumble in the bulrushes.
This bizarre moment is given further explanation in what must be a cinematic first – a cutback to the point of view of a cow that reveals the truth behind the event. Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is an exploration of the relationship between sex and death; an offering that relishes in the Thanatos complex. What’s more, the title is taken from a sorrowful funeral hymn reflecting on such themes. On the farmyard, life and death are a constant presence, as is the breeding of livestock. Sarah may desperately want a child, but her eyes are set on another destructive obsession. Throughout, our heroine narrates the qualities of a mystery lover – she yearns for him, even longs for him.
Initially, we believe this lover to be Akin, but a darker prospect lurks ever closer. All too rapidly the tension builds up steam, with the three central performances ratcheting up the aggression. Jeremiah continually taunts Akin – or, as he refers to him, “Shoulders” – constantly pushing for the truth as to why Akin has fled his family. The drama holds to an extent and the performances are strong, aided by Ashley Connor’s keen eye as cinematographer. Yet unfortunately, the themes of the film run as pungent as a farmyard. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely lacks subtlety, shifting into a generic thriller before drawing towards its inevitable conclusion.
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