Duck Butter: an experiment in chaotic realism

Duck butter, or “manteca de pato”, is a term for (and excuse the graphic description) thick white discharge around the vagina. Viscerally, this is quite an off-putting term, but it is also a lightly humorous one, and perhaps even subtly charming.

This is a good representation of the film as a whole. And while the characters don’t talk about vaginal discharge for the whole hour and thirty three minutes, there are some other frank discussions about… let’s say, bodily functions. More generally, the film is stressful to watch from the perspective of being emotionally draining. But, like “manteca de pato” (everything sounds cuter in Spanish), it also has its charm.

Soundtrack Stand Out: The Sun, Shin Joong Hyun

The experience of watching Duck Butter (Miguel Arteta, 2018) is greatly improved with some context of the circumstances surrounding its production. After several re-writes and a torrid casting process, one of the writers, Alia Shawkat, eventually took up the role of Naima, our main character. Naima, an emotionally shy and withdrawn actor, meets Sergio (Laia Costa), an outgoing and impulsive female artist. After they sleep together, they decide embark on an intense romantic challenge: a 24-hour relationship, during which they will have sex every hour, in order to speed up getting to know each other. It starts off well, but ー inevitably ー things begin to go wrong.

Mirroring the bubble of intimacy which encompasses Naima and Sergio, most of the film was shot over a 24-hour period with just the two main actors on screen. While this may seem like an innovative production decision, it can be draining to watch. The complete focus on these two women draws you into their emotions. A powerful, and effective, cinematic effect, this is also fucking exhausting. They barely sleep for the 24 hours; they have a lot of sex; they fight and argue ー and you’re there too. The whole time.

Top Tip: be ready for an intense emotional journey

Some of Duck Butter is (I think intentionally) messy, which without the context of filming strays into sloppy. While the acting is undoubtedly strong, the script sometimes waivers in illogical and bizarre directions, making it seem amateurish.

Overall, it reminded me of Jenée LeMarque’s ‘The Feels’, which I reviewed a couple of months ago. Not just because it was American lesbians talking about sex a lot, (though that did help), but because the dialogue ー and even the storyline at times ー felt improvised. And not really in a good way.

The film’s opening scenes are strangely chaotic. We see Naima at work trying to gain the respect of her director. Upfront, the direction of the film is not immediately obvious, and it is only after around 15 minutes that we begin to gain an understanding of where we are headed. While the first few scenes do make some contextual and thematic sense in hindsight, such an off-tone and difficult to follow opening might have made me switch off, had I not needed to watch this.

Soon, thankfully, we are introduced to a much smoother and more pleasant setting and a fuller cast of characters: intersecting groups of friends at a lesbian bar, where the 24-hour lovers meet. Sergio is on stage singing, and when she realises it isn’t going well, she decides to just make out with everyone in the audience instead, which, of course, proves to be a hit. Eventually she and Naima get chatting, and she convinces Naima to dance. Under the warm pink light and soft rock music (could we get more Sapphic than that?), they find a connection, and Naima goes back to Sergio’s for an after-party. And here we reach the film’s premise.

Naima in the club’s warm pink lighting.

Britney Line Time:Not gonna beg, so don’t make me / Yes or no, but no maybes / Here’s my invitation, baby

The early parts of their 24 hours together exist in a certain sense of idealisation. To give you an idea, here are some elements that represent this mood:

  • Large yellow fairy lights over an outdoor sofa
  • A crackling fire reflecting light onto their pensive faces
  • Going in for a kiss but then just breathing into each other’s mouths
  • Having sex still in vests
  • Sergio sitting on a piano
  • Naima playing a (further and different second) piano while Sergio makes out with her neck from behind

Biggest Gay Mood: burning sage after sex

Hopefully this gives you some kind of idea as to the cinematic picture that’s been painted.

I want to take you back to the acting at this point. The two leads really do carry the film through, and it is in their more subtle moments, playing with subtext, where they really shine. One strong example of this is an early fight they have: while Sergio is changing the sheets on her bed, they go through a whole emotional resolution arc without saying a word. Laia Costa does a beautiful job of gradually revealing Sergio as that fun but slightly unhinged and manipulative girl who you hate more the more you get to know her. Conversely, as Naima, Alia Shawkat opens up as the narrative progresses, learning to express herself and to ask for what she really wants. When Sergio makes her talk about difficult things, she fidgets and averts her gaze in a subtle reminder of her character’s reserve.

Ultimately, Costa and Shawkat contrast each other perfectly: emotional rawness vs emotional withdrawal, respectively. For Sergio and Naima, this difference proves to be the toughest barrier to overcome.

Zooming out from some of the storyboard’s weaknesses, the overall narrative arc is rather satisfying. The film is an inhale and an exhale; a rise and a fall; a walk over a hill and back down the other side. Through the intense emotional journey and chaotic realism, Naima may appear to be in the same position at the end as she was in at the start, but we can see in her face that she knows she’s moving forward.

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