Thou Wast Mild and Lovely: Berlin Review

Sophie Traub in "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely"
This is not the laid-back life on the farm John Denver was singing about in "Thank God I'm a Country Boy."

Joe Swanberg, Sophie Traub and Robert Longstreet circle one another with desire and danger in Josephine Decker's psychosexual pastorale.

Josephine Decker has pointed to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden as the kernel of inspiration for her intimate quasi-thriller Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, a connection only vaguely discernible in characters acting on their darkest impulses as they compete for one another’s attentions. More than any American literary tradition, the loose-limbed experimental film seems yet another nod to Terrence Malick in its reverence for the natural world. Shot in a woozy handheld style and laced with fussy visual affectations, the story mixes ripe sensuality with brooding menace in a tranquil pastoral setting. It’s not uninteresting but too self-consciously arty to rank Decker as a mature filmmaking voice.

The writer-director is represented with two films in the Berlin Forum, the other being Butter on the Latch, which acquired some admirers in festival showings in the U.S. In addition to making documentaries, Decker has worked as an actor, notably in films by Joe Swanberg, who returns the favor here. His uncharacteristically non-verbal role marks a welcome change of pace and is one of this shoestring project’s main strengths.

Swanberg plays Akin, a farm worker who slips off his wedding ring, saying nothing of the wife and child he left at home when he takes a summer job on a property in rural Kentucky. The farm is owned by Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet), an overbearing drunk whose relationship with his grown daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub) has creepy overtones. As outlined in her dreamy voiceovers, which sound like libidinously poetic entries from a private journal, the unscrubbed rustic beauty is about ready to pop with untapped desire. “I would have a baby right now if Daddy would let me,” Sarah tells the new hired hand.

Akin is a home-brew beer hobbyist, and that’s not all that’s fermenting between the longing looks that are exchanged as the cattle, horses and goats are grazing. But while Sarah flashes more signals than a traffic light, Jeremiah doesn’t warm to Akin. He constantly goads the taciturn outsider with observations questioning his manhood and the secrets he’s hiding.

In an unfinished story told over dinner one night, Jeremiah talks about the two wolves fighting within every human being – one good and kind, and the other evil. That Cain-and-Abel dynamic was at the heart of the Steinbeck novel. Akin one minute is on the phone whimpering to his wife that he wants to come home, and the next is furiously masturbating to thoughts of Sarah. Decker and co-writer David Barker seem to be suggesting that Akin’s urge to sin is fueled as much by Jeremiah’s malevolence as by Sarah’s flirtation. Either way, when his pretty wife (Kristin Slaysman) comes to visit and the beer flows, things turn ugly.

As telegraphed in anticipatory flashes of horrific violence, this is a lurid tale of sex and death recounted in short, oblique scenes and cloaked in the seductive imagery of grassy fields and docile animals. (There’s nothing quite like innocent, long-lashed cow eyes to make human behavior look sordid.) Decker’s storytelling gains traction as it progresses, but she keeps undercutting the erotic tension by having Traub indulge in silly exhibitions of exploding sexuality. Aside from those, her performance is not without effective moments.

Rather than a linear narrative with inbuilt plot momentum and character development, this is a film that seems mostly constructed in the cutting room (Decker, Barker and Steven Schardt share editing credit), with bursts of a dissonant string score to heighten the unsettling mood. Ashley Connor’s camera is either distractingly jittery or static, letting action play out within a random frame, as if the filmmaker is trying to make a virtue of unrefined aesthetics. On the plus side, biting the head off a live frog is certainly a new entry in the book of sexual come-ons.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)

Production company: Third Room Productions, Lavallette Interests

Cast: Joe Swanberg, Sophie Traub, Robert Longstreet, Kristin Slaysman, Geoff Marslett

Director: Josephine Decker

Screenwriters: Josephine Decker, David Barker

Producers: Laura Klein, Laura Heberton, Russell Sheaffer

Director of photography: Ashley Connor

Production designer: Sarah O’Brien

Music: Molly Herron, Jeff Young

Costume designer: Wilberth Gonzalez

Editors: Josephine Decker, David Barker, Steven Schardt

Sales: New Europe Film Sales/Paradigm Agency

No rating, 79 minutes