Cast: Helena Howard, Miranda July, Molly Parker
Director: Josephine Decker
Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a work of pure narcissism. And yet, all works of art are narcissistic extensions of their creators to varying degrees. The titular character (played by revelatory newcomer Helena Howard) may be a teenager at a New York theater company, but she’s so keenly aligned with Decker’s sensibilities that the fusion is never hidden from the audience. The notion that artistic creativity (not to mention risk-taking) can converge with real life experiences is at the center of the film, which purposefully veers away from traditional storytelling in order to conjure a state of emotional/psychological instability.
In a way, Howard’s breakthrough performance as a prodigy struggling with mental illness of some sort achieves the very thing Decker is attempting to capture aesthetically. But much like in real life, the messiness of glorifying the artist means there’s an insularity to Madeline’s Madeline which makes it frustratingly uneven. That filmic subjectivity— taking elements of the coming-of-age narrative and splintering it into emotional fragments—is fully on display here. The line between reality, art, and dreams is blurred; as are the edges of the frame shot in hazy hues. Decker’s roving camera is often so close to the actor’s faces as to produce claustrophobia. The soundtrack is layered with heavy breathing, out of sync dialogue, and clattering noise. Whether or not this works for particular audiences is up for grabs, but there’s no denying Decker’s commitment to purging Madeline’s psyche through cinematic techniques.
The film’s central dynamic rests between Madeline and her mother, Regina (Miranda July), whose relationship is complicated, to say the least. Then there’s Evangeline (Molly Parker), the theater director who seems to be steering her experimental play into the realm of Madeline’s personal life. The film’s central line, “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor” is spoken by multiple characters and recurs throughout; preparing us to take everything we see as subjective experience. When Madeline takes a scalding iron to her mother in one of her outbursts, for example, we are led to believe that it was either a dream or a projection of violence in order to impress her theater director. This kind of tension exists throughout Madeline’s Madeline, but there are times where Decker’s ambiguous posturing threatens to derail the emotional honesty of her film.
Near the climax, Madeline has a breakthrough of inner clarity in which she reenacts the supposed attack on her mother, and the unbridled energy of Howard’s performance absolutely sells the moment. For once, Madeline is not in control of her performative gifts. For once, the feeling of rejection from Regina is laid bare. Decker probably would have been wise to end her film there, but like her lead character, she just can’t help herself. Therefore, the finale; in which Madeline and her theater troupe retaliate against Evangeline by prodding her with cat masks and choreographed dance numbers in the streets, feels like the easy way out.
Of course, this wild explosion of artistic creation is meant to signify Madeline’s advancement, but it sidesteps the film’s more troubling questions. For one thing, she is still a child, and by extension, a narcissist. She cares only for her own thoughts and feelings. Evangeline, and to a lesser degree, Regina, are disparaged and then brushed aside. How could Madeline fulfill her artistic ambitions if her mother wasn’t at all supportive? Likewise, without Evangeline, she would have no artistic outlet at all. By fully embracing Madeline’s ego-driven mania, Decker understands the personal power of art, but also its limitations. And yet, for all its stylistic boldness and feral intensity, Madeline’s Madeline ultimately leans into art as therapy clichés instead of seriously dealing with a young woman’s disorienting coming-of-age.