Thou Wast Mild and Lovely may very well be the most pretentious film I’ve enjoyed this year. The second feature from Josephine Decker (previously best known as the person who stripped completely naked before attempting to sit across from Marina Abramovic during her The Artist Is Present performance at the MoMA),1 shot pretty much back to back with her first full-length film Butter on the Latch, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely centres on the relationship between two farmers (played by Sophie Traub and Robert Longstreet) and a farmhand (Joe Swanberg) who begins working on their property in the wake of the death of his first child. Decker only weakly adheres to this set-up, however, using this basic introduction to explore a number of (admittedly interrelated) subjects like gendered power relations, infidelity, and even incest; how she deals with these themes is far more important than the film’s actual plot, which I would describe as loose at best.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely really could have gone either way for me – I was often left wondering what was going on for the first 40 or so minutes of the film – but when I got into it, I really got into it and thanks to an inspired turn with about 20 minutes to go (one that is alluded to early on in the film but I never thought would be fully realised), I can honestly say I had a great time with the film and that it’s well worth checking out (if pretentious, low-budget, arty stuff is your kind of thing). As I don’t really want to get dive headfirst into the plot of the film as it is a bit of a one trick pony, and spoiling some of the bigger moments will detract from the overall experience, I’m going to talk about the technical strengths and weaknesses of Decker’s feature instead and hopefully give some insight into whether or not you’re the sort of person who will fit into Decker’s target audience.
First off, even if Thou Wast Mild and Lovely was flawlessly executed it would still definitely not be a film for everyone – the film places itself firmly within the lo-fi, “mumblecore”-y, micro-budget movie canon of the last decade or so and leans heavily on some of the tropes and features of these productions. If you can’t tolerate these techniques and cliches, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is not the film that’s going to convert you. The cinematography, while beautiful and inspired, is fairly shaky, often to the point of obfuscating the action. While I didn’t mind this and thought that the technique added to the sort-of fever dream aesthetic Decker was going for, others will find the level of confusion this potentially causes frustrating, and will find it difficult to move past the camera-rattling to appreciate the beauty of the film’s idyllic setting. The film features occasional pretentious narration from Traub that I can only compare to the cat’s voiceover in Miranda July’s The Future – after the first couple of times this popped up I found it a little frustrating, adding nothing else to the film than its first interjections hadn’t already accomplished and edging me more towards the camp of “pretentious trash” than “fantastic art”. Thankfully, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely benefits from some pretty strong pacing, especially coming from a fairly new director. Whenever the film was starting to drag a little, Decker would introduce something new and weird for me to mull over. At a brisk 75 or so minutes I have little to complain about runtime-wise – the film never overstays its welcome and thankfully Decker avoids padding everything out to achieve a slightly more marketable runtime. What we get content-wise is (for the most part) on point, hard-hitting and relevant to the film overall. The acting is exactly what you’d expect, not perfect, not amazing, but refined enough to be enjoyable and packed with real, raw human emotion when it needs to be. Everybody commits to their characters and when everything gets a little outlandish the realism of the performances do wonders to sell some of the more ridiculous plot points.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is by no means a perfect film, but it’s a fairly strong effort and I’m glad to have seen it (I’m quite excited to check out her first effort Butter on the Latch off the back of it). Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is gaining a lot of traction on the festival circuit right now and I’m excited for a future in which we foster this sort of artistic film-making. Whether or not the films are masterpieces is debateable, but they definitely have something interesting and different to say, and while I could talk about this film’s influences for hours, Decker has undeniably approached the cinematic medium from an angle that wildly varies from what we are presented with by most modern cinema, and that alone is commendable.
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