In the wake of their mutual childhood friend Flora’s suicide and still haunted by something very, very bad that happened (that they did…) to Flora when they were kids, drug-addled hipster party girl Pernilla (Remy Bennett) attends Flora’s funeral mostly as a way, it feels, of reconnecting with the absent Patrick (Evan Louison).

When Patrick is a no-show and Pernilla stumbles into his sister in a club, some stilted dialogue ensues and, now armed with his address, Pernilla leaves the neon-splashed Hell of Manhattan (and her long-term, sensible, boring boyfriend) and heads down Louisiana way where a sweaty Patrick is living in a shotgun shack in a New York socialite’s poverty porn fantasy of rural splendour.

Old habits die hard and despite his having found God (or at least littering his home with serial killer kitsch iconography) as a way of atoning for past sins and finding some measure of redemption, Patrick and Pernilla’s twisted fascination with each other takes up more or less where they left off decades earlier as they toy with each other and those around them, indulge in gameplay, innocent and playful at first but increasingly dark, cruel and sexual, their passion spiralling out of control, threatening to destroy them.

Co-written ad co-directed by Emilie Richard-Froozan and Tony Bennett’s granddaughter Remy Bennett (which, going by the film’s promotional materials, seems to be the film’s major selling point) stars as Pernilla, Buttercup Bill, their feature debut, is described by Bennett as “a psychosexual Lynchian Badlands, a disturbing love story of two long-lost soulmates and their surreal relationship with a mischievous imaginary childhood friend.” Richard-Froozan adding “It’s a melancholy and sexually bold story told through the female gaze, because what the fuck do guys know about sex?” It’s a brash, deliberately provocative statement, one that watching Buttercup Bill begs the question: what the fuck do Richard-Froozan and Bennett know about sex? Or love? Human relationships? Believable, relatable characters? Not a huge amount it would seem but they’ve definitely seen a few David Lynch films, a high school performance of A Streetcar Named Desire and read the dust jacket of The Story Of The Eye without ever buying the book. What more do they need to know?

Buttercup Bill looks very pretty but is vacuous, so empty if you held it up to your ear you’d hear the ocean. Opening in a purgatorial Manhattan of shallow parties, casual promiscuity and hedonistic ennui that’s claustrophobic, visually arresting and the only part of the film that feels truthful, an addled Pernilla wandering through her own personal Hell, surrounded by people but alone, alone but for a phantom boy in a cowboy costume, Buttercup Bill, the childhood imaginary friend she and Patrick adopted as a persona to excuse the darkest, most twisted games they played now an avatar of Pernilla’s conscience, a manifestation of her guilt over the very bad thing they did to Flora two decades before.

But, as is always the case in pretentious psychosexual dramas (and most of Zalman King’s oeuvre), Pernilla heads South (quite literally, pun very much intended) to a golden-tinged, poverty porn aesthetically perfect world where it’s hot, sweet and sticky and she’s both the tempting serpent and the forbidden fruit in Patrick’s bayou Garden of Eden. Things then pretty much unfold as you’d expect. You’ve seen this story before. You could write it. You couldn’t do a worse job.

Pernilla and Patrick are shallow, obnoxious, sexually precocious free spirits who quickly graduate from playful food fights to sexual teasing to burning each other with spoons heated on the stove to Pernilla flicking herself off while watching Patrick fuck some random one-nighter. And as Pernilla and Patrick grow closer their passion boiling, the deep, dark secret, the very bad thing they did to Flora stands between them, threatening to destroy their redemptive love.

For Bennett and Richard-Froozan this is bold, transgressive, taboo-busting filmmaking, empowering women sexually and emotionally. Sadly, Buttercup Bill’s exactly the exercise in sophomoric pomposity you’d expect from a couple of petit bourgeois filmmakers convinced they’re saying something IMPORTANT! about love, desire and female sexuality. The film has little to say, certainly nothing original, an exercise in overwrought obviousness that reminded me of ‘90s bayou bonkathon Zandalee, the kind of erotic thriller that used to fill the shelves of Blockbuster video, often starring proper actors (well, Nicolas Cage anyway) before the proliferation of the Internet. I’m not saying Zandalee is particularly transgressive but at least Nicolas Cage does help the heroine come to appreciate and embrace her sexuality by digitally stimulating her with fingers lubed with olive oil and cocaine. And they shag in a church for no other reason than sheer blasphemy. Which is significantly more transgressive than anything the adult Pernilla and Patrick get up to.

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much if there was even a spark of chemistry between Bennett and Louison but the only sparks between them are those you’d get from rubbing sticks together to start a campfire, the scene where they finally give in to their sexual tension reminiscent of the sex scene in Team America (though far less erotic), their performances strictly from the school of Supermarionation. Putting the psycho into psychosexual, Louison’s Patrick is as worrying as a sexually aggressive Milky Bar kid while writer/director/star Bennett’s frequent nudity is bold and challenging for all the wrong reasons. Mainly because she looks like Tony Bennett with his tits out.

Smug, self-indulgent and pretentious, Buttercup Bill feels like a hipster retelling of Georges Bataille’s The Story Of The Eye with all the dark, taboo, twisted sexuality cut out. And what’s the point of that?

Movie Review: Buttercup Bill
2.0Overall Score
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