August 10, 2018
‘Madeline’s Madeline,’ One of the Year’s Best Films, is a Brilliant Exploration of Art, Artists, and Artistic Responsibility
(This article contains minor spoilers, but nothing that should diminish your enjoyment of the film.)
Madeline’s Madeline is mind-boggling.
The phrase is seldom used as a compliment, though it takes experiencing the film first-hand to see why it fits. Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely follow-up is decidedly Brechtian, opening by distancing itself from an audience who, by now, would’ve no doubt caught wind of its charms (the film was a hit at Sundance in January and Fantasia and it is in theaters today). “The emotions you are having are not your own,” we’re told up front, by a black nurse played by Okwui Okpokwasili, shot in angelic close up as the frame shimmers in and out of focus. “They are someone else’s.” We begin to experience physical space — a house, a room, the natural world — from a disorienting perspective. On the ground. Upon a table. Vantages we aren’t used to. Okpokwasili clarifies, as we crawl towards an unseen woman and her ironing board, surrounded by what feels like a half-dressed set: “You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.” Curious.
While a direct reminder that we’re witnessing fiction, born through the convergence of a variety of creative impulses — writer-director Decker, cinematographer Ashley Connor, a tremendous lineup of sound artists, etc. — Okpokwasili’s intro is as much a question as it is a statement of intent. I’ve mentioned Okpokwasili four times thus far, though I ought to clarify, the character she plays is at best a minor supporting role (we’ll return to her shortly). Yet she, like so many of the film’s seemingly minor facets, is vital to Madeline’s story.
The plot is best described as that of troubled, biracial teenager Madeline (Helena Howard, in a herculean debut) as she deals with an unspecified mental illness, veering between her volatile home life, where things escalate at the drop of a hat, and her rehearsals with an improv/experimental theatre troupe whom she considers family. Its presentation however, renders any such explanation moot; there are discussions of what happens in the film below, though it’s virtually spoiler-proof. How the film happens feels like magic.
Madeline is caught between two lives. Two frequencies. In effect, two mothers, both of them white. Miranda July plays her mother Regina, a single woman raising two kids; Molly Parker plays Evangeline, the enthusiastic director who bends Madeline’s ear and helps her believe in her abilities. Though while both Regina and Evangeline are disparate destinations for a teen attempting to find herself, they each inadvertently attempt to craft a Madeline of their own liking. Regina, the ever concerned, ever on-edge, coddles her unpredictable daughter, but lashes out at every hint of change in behaviour — perhaps out of self-preservation, or perhaps protective instinct since Madeline refuses to take her meds. Evangeline, the more mellow mother, sits Madeline down and discusses her interior life in the broadest of strokes, nurturing the young actress as a means to an end through the creation of a character named Zia. To Evangeline, whose love is no doubt genuine, Madeline is a story to be found, and subsequently, told.
Madeline (like the actress who plays her) brims with unspeakable talent, able to map out complex emotional journeys in silence on the level of Daniel Kaluuya. Her stagecraft is simply stunning. Howard brings with her a gargantuan presence like few performers her age, but Madeline’s creative spark is ultimately a conundrum; conventional wisdom might say she exists at the nexus of “genius” and “crazy,” with the two states in symbiosis. We see the world through her eyes and ears in disorienting fashion; she absorbs information in bits and pieces, often in attempt to turn external stimulus into performance, modulating and filtering all she sees so as not to get overwhelmed.
Sounds, both within and surrounding a conversation, intrude and fade out at random. Minor details, like smirks and wrinkles, blur in and out of focus; the camera is in a constant state of exploration. In one moment, Madeline breathes in the whole picture of what’s being said to her, and why. In the next, she grows concerned with her own inability to concentrate, as if concentrating on the act of concentrating to make up for it. Whether instructions on how a cat behaves or Evangeline unpacking (to poor effect, while creating Zia) the meaning of Madeline’s dreams, the information Madeline retains sneaks its way in to subsequent rehearsals — inspiration, after all, isn’t an exact science.
Madeline is a turtle, or rather inside it, as she’s transported from an empty stage onto a beachfront, lugging around a shell as she learns more about her physicality. Madeline is a cat, or perhaps inside one, as she slinks across the floor, meowing to friends and strangers alike as she navigates her relationship to the people around her. Madeline is violent, or perhaps inside some violent version of herself, as she dreams, or fantasizes about, or maybe even remembers burning her mother with an iron. Is her art compartmentalizing these thoughts and experiences, or blurring the lines between them? Who can say. Whatever the case, they exist as an impulse, in some form, within her messy consciousness. As the cat, she learns to walk. As the turtle, she is born anew. As the violent Madeline, of the past or present or possible future, she projects some fundamental part of herself through this violent imagery.
Whether the true Madeline creates a more raucous image through art, or whether some phantom, disconnected Madeline gives way to her authentic self only when she performs, acting seems as close as she’ll get to equilibrium in these formative years. Either way, this authentic self feels discombobulated. It’s constructed through haphazard quests for identity that manifest as performance, whether as literal acting — Madeline uses the image of a pregnant Evangeline to conjure up a disturbing miscarriage scene alongside Okpokwasili’s nurse, as a means to deal with her own hospitalization — or whether the kind of search for sexual identity that’s expected of a girl her age. While still childishly giddy over her first kiss with a classmate, Madeline approaches Evangeline’s black husband for tips on how to be promiscuous. Whatever the context, whether fun or therapeutic or some inseparable hybrid, her “performance” is always confrontational. It culminates in a devastating scene where she performs a true-to-life monologue from the perspective of her mother, with her mother as the audience, reducing them both to tears. For Madeline, art is a coping mechanism. For Evangeline however, it’s an opportunity.