BUTTERCUP BILL (2014)
Directed by Remy Bennett and Émilie Richard-Froozan
As kids, imaginary friends were usually great! They’d always be able to play with you if nobody was around, your parents wouldn’t eye them with suspicion like they may lead you stray and (crucially) they’d do everything you said. I say ‘usually’, because then there’s Buttercup Bill. Unnerving and naughty, this kid in a cowboy hat used to be part of a small group of local children, with a number of secrets. Having fallen apart over the years, two of his now grown up friends are reunited after a traumatic event. Their memories of him and what they did drive the plot, in this debut feature from Remy Bennett (who also stars) and Emilie Richard-Froozan.
Combined with this website’s title, my opening blurb has likely conjured up an image of some generic ‘psychological horror’, in which adults are tormented by a ghost from their childhood. They then face up to it in a cathartic scene, littered with generous servings of thunder and rocking horses. Finally the hero would look to his partners eyes and say he’s no longer afraid. And they’d kiss. Buttercup Bill is the antithesis of that kind of movie. For the most part it’s a slow burning and very bleak southern gothic romance. Following the death of theirs and Bill’s mutual friend, the focus is on two supposed soul mates – the damaged Pernilla (Bennett), and her attempts to revive a doomed relationship with the equally damaged Patrick (Louison). Initially interacting with each other like the children they once were together (within moments there’s a food fight), this innocence gives way to lust before the movie takes a much darker turn in the second half as the line between love and cruelty gets more blurred. Both parties get to the other with sadistic teasing and sexual games that, like a black hole, gain momentum ’til they encompass those around them too. As the first credit roll any innocence the film had has been lost, like so many childhood dreams, as the characters come to a better of understanding of how and why they’re as messed up as they are.
There’s a lot to like here. Both leads do an excellent job of inhabiting their roles, with performances subtle and nuanced enough to keep you wanting to learn more. The (admittedly romanticised) tropical mysticism of the deep-south provides a highly atmospheric setting for the tale. Half-drunk whisky bottles line chicken coups in shacks, and cemetery walls are covered in religious graffiti. Paired with a soundtrack the combines elements of twang and horns, there’s a mesmerizing and real other-worldly feel to it with a high fervent energy. When we see dancing we want to join in, and when we see sex it looks legitimately passionate. Yet beneath the beautiful aesthetic a certain grime underlines everything, like dirt under finger nails. It’s like a dirty mix of the sacred and the profane up until its closing frames. Whilst the adjective ‘Lynchian’ tends to get lazily applied to almost anything with slow-mo, a jazz score and a colour filter, here it’s actually kind of fitting. But whilst Buttercup Bill may have matched his visual approach, what it lacks is the sense of completeness that’s still inherent to much of his most obscure work.
Problem is it’s all a smidge too detached and shallow. You won’t be as moved by the characters plights as you’ll want to be. Frustratingly the closing scenes are the strongest and show us exactly what was missing from the earlier ones – a sense of drama. Yes we’re engaged by the visuals and the performances of the movie. But the stakes never seem particularly high until it’s almost over. Throughout the characters want themselves to be better and by the end you will too – albeit in a different way. Part of this may be because the mystery underpinning the whole film (i.e. what they and the titular imaginary friend did) is left on the back burner ‘til far too late in proceedings. This means it feels tacked on instead of providing an explanation for what’s just been watched. A coherence like this is what separates merely good films from great ones. The unravelling of memories is too slow so the eventual revelation feels more like a plot twist, designed to give a climatic ending, than a genuine progression. And one that if explored earlier could have given the film an emotional core that’s sorely absent for much of the running time.