When manic pixies come to life

Miguel Arteta’s 'Duck Butter' subverts our perception of – and humanises – the 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' trope in cinema

You know her. You’ve seen her. The life of a room. The storm in a bottle. The “crazy one”. Dances like nobody is watching. Talks like nobody is listening. She marches to her own beat, stands on her own feet. She is fickle, free, fragile, furious. She is everything you are not. Introverts are hypnotised by her and extroverts envy her.

Wild and uninhibited

Cinema knows her as the 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl'. As the wildchild. And as the damaged dame that inadvertently destroys – spilling the wreckage of fractured lovers in her wake. The movies didn’t invent her, but they romanticise her. They also judge her. As a result, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is now a modern stereotype. She is cursed with a preordained madness; her mercurial unpredictability has become predictable. When she’s not smoking cigarettes or skinny-dipping in the neighbour’s swimming pool, she’s breaking hearts.

Take, for instance, the titular character of Meri Pyaari Bindu. Parineeti Chopra’s Bindu is more of an idea than a complicated woman – she waltzes in and out of the pensive hero’s life, and is addicted to a sense of unaccountability. She remains the proverbial “one that got away”. Like Jenny (Forrest Gump) and Summer (500 Days of Summer), she is less of a heroine and more of a coming-of-age device. She exists so that others can create art out of her. Most (male) writers aren’t very sympathetic to this uninhibited character.

Miguel Arteta’s Duck Butter, co-written by actress Alia Shawkat, has two pegs: It’s an indie lesbian romance, and it has an unorthodox premise of two Los Angeles girls deciding to accelerate the heady falling-in-love phase by spending 24 sleepless hours together punctuated by hourly sex sessions. But the real peg lies in how the film subverts our perception of – and humanises – the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The girl in question is Sergio, an aspiring singer who catches the eye of protagonist Naima (Shawkat) at a gay pub. Sergio is the unapologetic nutter. Naima, a struggling actress, is the shy one. They dance, kiss and spend the night together. You can sense that Naima is seduced by Sergio’s impulsiveness.

Once Sergio proposes the 24-hour experiment, we see some quintessential MPDG traits. Sergio tutors Naima to loosen up – they masturbate together, scream out an imaginary conversation with a parent, have sex in a public place. Sergio admits that she imagines an orgy with her friends, and even encourages Naima to send a stinker of an email to her ex-employers. (Remember Geet in Jab We Met?). At one point, she even slaps Naima’s face with a bag of dog poop. Spunky Sergio is clearly the one desired, and she has the freckle-faced Naima wrapped around her pinky.

When roles reverse

But Duck Butter refrains from perpetuating this pixie-dust syndrome. Midway through, we sense a gradual personality swap of sorts. Naima spends so long trying to validate herself in Sergio’s starry eyes that by the time she finally does, Sergio falls in love with her – and Naima begins to have second thoughts. Sergio becomes the needy one and Naima craves for space. As viewers, we begin to empathize with Sergio’s passion and feel revolted by Naima’s sudden indifference.

Naima hosts Sergio’s mother for breakfast, and starts to realise the depth of her leap. She sees a lost Sergio stripped beyond the glamour of her movie exterior. She sees Sergio as human, weak and insecure like herself, which somewhat kills her infatuation. Sergio panics when Naima actually plans an orgy, and Naima panics when Sergio vies for her affection over the other girls. The roles are reversed: Naima resembles the reckless heartbreaker, and Sergio aches for a full romance. Owing to her petite form and foreign energy, the Spanish actress behind Sergio, Laia Costa, has become the symbol of manic-pixie-ness in English-language films.

But this isn’t the first time she has challenged the concept by turning into a tragedy.

In both Victoria and Newness, her characters’ experimental nature backfires and exposes their own vulnerabilities. In the former, a one-shot heist drama on the streets of Berlin, Costa plays a carefree Spaniard who trusts a bunch of good-hearted German hooligans – and experiences love and life-altering loss over three frenetic hours. In the latter, Costa’s character attempts an open relationship with her live-in partner to disastrous consequences.

Breaking free

Duck Butter marks the finale of her ‘manic trilogy’. And it somewhat completes the pixie’s coming-of-age arc. Sergio is the one who feels betrayed, and she is the one who ends up allowing heartbreak to inspire her art. It’s usually the inhibited – Abhimanyu, Forrest, Tom Hansen – that break free. It’s usually the quiet that find a voice. But as Sergio stands on stage, choosing a familiar song in her ex’s memory, the truth finally dawns upon us: cinema’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl is nothing but life’s deflected introvert.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 10:11:37 PM |

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