Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a fragmented collage in image and sound of impressions – a disorientating, passionate welter of dreams, fantasy and reality – that tries to get inside the conflicted head of a 16-year-old aspiring actress.
The Divided Selfby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Madeline (Helena Howard) has been treated for an unspecified mental illness in the past and is now attending a summer workshop in experimental and physical theatre, where she’s the only teenager in a group of adult performers. Fuzzy information about past and present comes out obliquely throughout the film and has to be pieced together to form an underlying back story and narrative.
It’s also a coming-of-age drama that takes place over these holidays in which Madeline starts to find her own identity. She’s a talented aspiring actress, waiting to get a place at the prestigious Juillard, with the rather frightening ability to unleash raw passion and completely lose herself in a role – perhaps at risk to her developing sense of self. We see her at the start inhabiting her improvisations of a cat and a turtle before exploring more dangerous areas of her life in the workshop.
Madeline is mixed race. This is itself creates noticeable tension in her life and she has a strained relationship with her harassed white single mother Regina (Miranda July). There’s no mention of her father. In contrast, she develops a mutual mother-substitute relationship with the charismatic director of the improvisational group, Evangelina (Molly Parker).
As the workshops get more intense, Evangelina’s affection for her star pupil starts to verge on exploitation as she seizes the opportunity to mine her violent dreams about her mother for the theatre piece she’s developing with the group. She either ignores or does not see how psychologically vulnerable the girl is and it leads to disturbing repercussions in the group.
And, finally, it’s pointed out right at the beginning that Madeline’s Madeline is also a metaphor of itself – “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor. The emotions you are having are not your own; they are someone else’s” – of filmmaking, of the meaning of performance, and how you reconcile emotional experience and the outside world, art and life. Wow!
There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a Marmite film, but love it or loathe it, newcomer Helena Howard’s performance as Madeline is phenomenal and award worthy. Apart from small parts for male actors such as Curtiss Cooke and Jaron Elijah Hopkins, the main cast is entirely women and the three principals – Howard, Parker and July – are superb and pitch perfect. Experimental director Josephine Decker (Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) also co-wrote the film with Donna di Novelli. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.
Madeline’s Madeline premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released in cinemas in the UK and on Mubi on 10 May 2019.