Duck Butter’s Naima (Alia Shawkat) and Sergio (Laia Costa) fuck like the world is ending. They do it at Sergio’s house, they do it at Naima’s house, they do it outside within potential view of strangers. They finger bang on a piano bench and kiss in between slurps of mango. They recreate Sergio’s experience of learning to masturbate with pillows alongside her cousin. They enjoy a salutary fuck, and they engage in makeup sex.
After a stretch, Naima notes, “You know, we haven’t had sex in two hours.” She says this gravely, as if confronting Sergio with a rupture in their relationship. At this point, it’s been less than 36 hours since they made each other’s acquaintance.
The rigorous sex schedule is Duck Butter’s gimmick: Two queer women meet at a club, they go home together with some friends for an after-hours hang, the friends leave, Naima and Sergio fuck, and then find themselves in a daydreamy kind of chat about relationships. Sergio recalls a three-year relationship that fizzled and ultimately amounted to a waste of time. They fantasize about accelerating the courtship process, and diving right into a relationship. “You can’t play it safe in love,” says Sergio. “Do everything you want the second you want,” says Naima. They hypothesize a way of getting to know each other by having sex each hour on the hour in a 24-hour period. Naima decides it’d be too taxing on her body because she has an acting gig, but after she’s fired from that job the next morning, she ends up on Sergio’s doorstep later that day. And so begins their fuckfest.
It’s a premise that’s as absurd as it is tantalizing: “We can fucking skip time,” says Sergio, as though their pact could endow them with powers beyond those of typical mortals. Imagine having that kind of control over the elements! Reading about this before seeing the movie, it probably seems like a premise that could only live in the kind a quirky mumblecore movie courtesy of the Mark and Jay Duplass (whose Duplass Brothers Productions helped produce this movie). But the chemistry between Costa and Shawkat, who co-wrote the movie with its director Miguel Arteta, makes it all plausible. The intensity with which they look at each other with their faces just inches apart, the agility with which they bounce emotions off each other like they’re playing a sport, is nothing short of masterful. If you look at a relationship as its own organism, a separate entity from the participants who come together to create it, Duck Butter is a character study for the ages. If any one approach to relationships were right, everyone would do that and they’d stay together forever. Clearly we’re all just figuring this shit out as we go. Duck Butter is a movie about the messiness of process.
Movies rarely capture just how much sex can mean to a relationship, especially a nascent one—in that respect, Duck Butter reminds me of Gaspar Noé’s highly explicit 2015 film, Love. Duck Butter, though sharing a few plot similarities (including group sex gone awry), is less tortured and less pathologized. This is a matter-of-factly sex positive portrait that asks viewers to accept that its two female protagonists love sex (and perhaps each other) so much that they want to engage in it all day long. It envisions the kind of all-day/all-night sex you often hear about in songs, but so rarely experience in life. It is a movie that is militantly opposed to shame, so much so it’s named after the smegma collected in Naima’s crotch that turned off an older guy she once had sex with. As she recounts the story, Sergio calls it “duck butter,” and tells Naima she should send him a box of hers. The scene that directly follows features Naima’s face buried in Sergio’s ass as she eats her out from behind. This movie boldly sticks its nose where others don’t.
It’s more subtle than it sounds. During their 24 hours together, intimacy expands and contracts. Emotions roll in and out of Naima and Sergio like clouds, as unignorable and inexplicable as weather. Shawkat’s Naima is a wincing picture of discomfort who’s at times clearly holding back (if not outright lying), while Costa’s Sergio is an impulsive idealist who presents herself as an addict of honesty and openness until the faintest sign that she’s not on the same page with Naima. The obliqueness of motivation may test the patience of some viewers, but I found it refreshing. I couldn’t help comparing Duck Butter to another movie about an affair between two women that’s also opening this week, Disobedience. Without much insight into the North London community of Orthodox Jews that it portrays, Disobedience is the type of movie where you know exactly what every character is feeling all of the time (until the flabbergasting conclusion that seems to have been devised to uphold the film’s title). While there is an argument to be made for simplicity and clarity, I nonetheless felt like I was watching a soap opera when I saw Disobedience. Not so with Duck Butter, which feels more lifelike. Its ambiguities, in fact, reinforce its own reality, reminding us of how little Naima and Sergio actually know each other, and provoking us to wonder how knowable anyone really is.