“What are we making?”
Experimental, emotionally overwhelming, and appropriately dressed in shades of ambiguity, Madeline’s Madeline is an obscure and enigmatic film that’s comfortable in the many skins it so easily sheds and transfers between. At less than 90 minutes, I can’t say that the slithering story ever knows exactly how it wants to present itself or what it wants to say, although that’s for good reason, too. Madeline’s Madeline is a performance piece, heavily invested in the separation of art/artist and art/reality, and the movie incorporates the two together like a load of laundry left to tumble dry on high heat. It’s a personal roller coaster that clings to you like a sweater full of static electricity.
Madeline (Helena Howard, a newcomer brimming with poise and matured talent) never appears to be, as her mother Regina (Miranda July in a tremendous supporting role) so indelicately says, very stable. A quick shot of a silicone wristband in her room reads “NOT FOR CUTTING” and later on we see the random scars covering her arms. Other small cues give depth, such as Regina hand feeding her 16-year-old daughter. The two share a contentious, confounding relationship. One minute Madeline is assaulting her lone parent, even dreaming about causing her physical harm, then other times they’re lying together on a blanket laughing, presumably near New York’s Prospect Park given the surroundings. When she’s not with her mom, Madeline can be found rehearsing in Evangeline’s (Molly Parker) theater group. The performance collective gives her the space to create and to explore, as well as the ability to blur the lines of reality altogether.
This movie – or better yet, this case study – begins in a moment of intentional obscurity. We’re told, “You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.” Perhaps these words are an obvious allusion to Schrödinger’s cat and the paradoxical approach the story takes to its own thought experiment. Or maybe I’m just looking for meaning where no answers can or will be found; that’s part of what makes the film both perplexing and intriguing. As the story treads towards the boundaries of hysteria, we come to understand that the picture never even sought out or intended to draw within the limits of sanity from the get go. To create honest art, you sometimes have to go outside the lines. The story generates an increasingly hostile, albeit secure environment for its artists to trapeze around with one another, and it does so without a safety net. If somebody falls it just becomes part of the act. Madeline’s Madeline is a scripted film, and yet you can sense the organic improvisation of its immersive theatrics. Every moment, every movement, every word comes by surprise.
Whether or not Madeline’s Madeline really confronts its protagonist’s state of mental health is up for debate, and I’d personally side with those who say this aspect of the film is underdeveloped. I needed more – something concrete – to find a rooted place of reality. Again, that seems to be the point of this chaotic endeavor though. Much like 2015’s The Fits, writer/director Josephine Decker guides us into an uneasy place of developmental entrapment, where things make sense when they go unquestioned and thus unanswered. Here the actors use Lee Strasberg’s method of acting to create a meta metaphor, painting a distorted reality where artists become lost in their art, or conversely, where the art takes control over the artist. Oscar Wilde said, “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Madeline’s Madeline counters his statement with a rebuttal that’s logical, scattered, incomplete, and utterly mesmerizing. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
“What you are experiencing is just a metaphor.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5