Death always leaves an empty space, previously occupied by the deceased, that those left behind can fill only with memories and mourning. Yet in the first act of Buttercup Bill, the absence most keenly felt by Pernilla (Rémy Bennett, who also co-wrote and directed with Émilie Richard-Froozan) is not that of her childhood playmate Flora, who has just hanged herself in a park, but of another, more insidious figure.
Though engaged, Pernilla continues to be obsessed with Patrick (Evan Louison), the third corner of her triangular relationship with Flora, even though she has not seen him since their shared pre-adolescence. Patrick’s failure to show up to Flora’s funeral triggers in Pernilla an emotional breakdown that is reflected in the filmmaking itself, with its fractured editing, its dissociative blurring of dreams and reality, its disorienting impressionism. As Pernilla goes from bacchanalian New York parties to sessions with her therapist to fucking a stranger in a nightclub toilet, as she does drinks and drugs to excess, as she is haunted by flashbacks to parkland games, what we are witnessing is a ‘woman in trouble’. Pernilla’s dreams of a cowboy figure (‘Buttercup Bill’) – and the presence of a retro female bar singer who looks as though she might at any point break into ‘Blue Velvet’ – establish with economy this prologue’s decidedly Lynchian vibe.
After running into Patrick’s sister and getting his contact details, Pernilla heads south – both literally and metaphorically – to the backwoods cabin of her one-time beau, where the film settles into a more linear mode while accumulating all manner of psychosexual heft along the way. These two make house together again, picking up exactly where they left off a decade or so earlier (in a dwelling filled with the toys and detritus of childhood) and continuing to play coded, often cruel games whose rules only they seem to understand – typically at the expense of any woman who comes between them.
In the sultry, sweaty heat, Bennett and Richard-Froozan keep this strange psychodrama simmering on slow burn, building ever so gradually to an explanation of the relationship dynamic – or more precisely stasis – that has rooted the couple in a mutual longing for something that it is too late for them ever to have. In all their dysfunction, Pernilla and Patrick are obviously made for each other – so much so that outsiders wonder aloud if they are siblings, or even twins. Yet something in their history, unspoken until the very end, has driven them apart, and put Patrick on a path of religion and redemption to atone for past sins – and so, reunited once more, all they can do is go through the motions, replaying youthful scenarios in an adult world, all as a doomed attempt to escape the reality of who they were and are.
Beautifully shot, subtly performed, and full of grown-up observations on precocious, perilous play, Buttercup Bill is a down-and-dirty southern gothic of unresolved childhood and arrested guilt, where no amount of sweltering heat can end the big chill of love mistimed and death postponed.
© Anton Bitel