Director: Josephine Decker
Stars: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July
Here’s the first thing, and its an important one; this isn’t so much an indie darling as it is an art house film posing as one. Madeline’s Madeline has courted praise in highbrow quarters, and the aura that has been extended is of something perhaps far more readily digested than what’s actually on offer. The other thing is that this film concerns a budding theatre troupe. You’re going to have to spend a lot of time in the company of people wearing comfy black clothes and no shoes who mime. If you can’t deal with that, there’s the door.
Madeline (Helena Howard) is sixteen years old. As Decker’s fluid approach to narrative reveals to us, she has ongoing mental health issues. Depression has been a fulcrum. There’s a suggestion of self-harm and symptoms of an eating disorder. Not to mention six weeks in a psychiatric ward that her mother Regina (Miranda July) inelegantly drops into conversation.
Her relationship with her mother is a great part of Madeline’s sensitivity, but fortunately she has an out; the acting classes that she attends courtesy of Evangeline (Molly Parker). Evangeline, however, is in a creative rut. The group are working toward a performance piece of Evangeline’s devising, but it is clear that there is no plan. Tilting at windmills, Evangeline talks vaguely about a theme of imprisonment, before latching onto the topic of mental illness. So begins a period of escalating discomfort for Madeline, as her two clearly delineated worlds – home and class – start to converge.
Decker’s approach here is startling, and her vivid creativity with form is as interesting as the evolving dynamics within the story. Madeline’s Madeline has the feel, one supposes, of synaesthesia. You feel like you can smell colours. Taste sounds. Decker gets in close. She disperses her actors, focusing on details. Hair. Mouths. Eyes. She uses extremes of focus. Often people merge with backgrounds, or are devoured by rainbow bleed effects. During all of this she has the soundtrack overtaken by rhythms of breathing and vocal dancing. The score calls to mind the elaborate cacophonies of Bjork’s Medulla. And that’s nothing but a compliment around here.
These dizzying effects initially feel like dalliances of Decker’s; as though she is mimicking the uncertainty of Evangeline’s project. But once you acclimatise to the motion of the film – and let go of the importance of things like story – these things strongly define the shape and feeling of Madeline’s Madeline. If that last sentence suggests there’s no structure or pay-off to the film, then that couldn’t be further from the truth; the final act is revelatory. But the getting there is languid and expressive, prone to improvs of its own. Along the way Decker gets stuck into themes of responsibility, and gets self-reflexive about it.
What are the responsibilities of art when depicting mental illness? And, in this case, the responsibilities of a creative director who preys upon her aptest of pupils? There’s a delicious ambiguity to how much Evangeline knows about Madeline’s mental health. Is she deliberately picking at it as a source for her vanity project? Initially, it would seem not. She’s pitiably naive. But as Madeline’s talent starts to intimidate her, Evangeline’s efforts to involve Regina in the show begin to feel like calculated attacks. When Madeline confides in her about a dream of matricide, Evangeline works it into the show, much to Madeline’s stifled dismay. Worse, she invites Regina to join in.
With an actor of Molly Parker’s calibre playing Evangeline, you’d really have to go some to find a young upstart who could genuinely seem like a threat to her. Enter Helena Howard. She’s just incredible here as Madeline, be that wholly embodying a cat for one of the class exercises, relaxing as ‘herself’, or channeling her mother for one of the finale’s stacked showstopping moments. Howard appears to be the real deal, and it will be very interesting to see where she goes from here.
Decker feels out on a limb with this one, but that’s no bad thing. Watching Madeline’s Madeline, I found it tough to find an adequate comparable peer to her. Her approach seems unique in the current American scene, and that’s a great boon. While the theme of improv theatre and certain props brought to mind Jacque Rivette’s labyrinthine masterpiece Out 1 from 1971, Madeline’s Madeline doesn’t appear to have a direct parallel in the modern cinematic landscape, at least that I’ve encountered*.
This originality or uniqueness is its own rocket fuel, but it can make the film feel feral or alien. On initial approach its tough to gauge, and as much time is spent suspecting it of aimless indulgence as is spent being charmed by what it accomplishes. Ultimately, the sense of challenge evoked in the third act is compelling enough. Madeline’s Madeline turns its head skyward and goes out on a high.
This is a precious and precocious picture that ought to find a wider audience for Josephine Decker (I look forward to opportunities to catch up myself). It also slyly defies expectations and leaves plenty to mull over once its 93 minutes are up. If you’re in the mood to be challenged, check your local listings (or sign up to MUBI, who will have it on their platform for a limited time) and strike while the iron’s hot.
* please feel free to suggest otherwise.