The spirit of wild, experimental cinema is well and truly alive in the heart of writer-director Josephine Decker. Madeline’s Madeline is her bold, nightmarish exercise in disorientation, in which the mental state of the enraptured audience unravels every bit as chaotically as that of the eponymous character.
Young actress Madeline – played by Helena Howard in a breakout performance – is a lonely teenager who throws much of her energy and impetus into her slightly pretentious theatrical troupe. The troupe’s leader is Evangeline (Molly Parker), who takes a liking to Madeline for her willingness to bring the scars of her real life into the performances. Madeline is on medication for an unspecified mental illness and has a fractious relationship with her paranoid mother Regina (Miranda July) – a relationship Evangeline urges her to incorporate in her work.
Decker’s film hangs a question mark over this relationship between Evangeline and Madeline. On the one hand, the younger woman sees Evangeline as a mentor figure, but the movie clearly and urgently engages with the notion that there might be an exploitation of Madeline’s illness at play in the name of art. Indeed, Decker is keen to raise questions as to how much of what the audience sees is real and how much is a result of the protagonist’s fragile mental state.
The film has a woozy, dreamlike effect, with kaleidoscopic blurring frequently intruding at the edges of the frame, enhanced by Caroline Shaw’s disorientating soundscape. Decker opts to shoot almost all of the action in tight close-ups, which traps the audience right in the heart of Madeline’s psyche. The close-ups serve as a particularly powerful agent of chaos in the scenes of dance and performance, which ramp up in intensity. This troupe often seems to only be a pitcher of spiked sangria away from the murder and mayhem of Gaspar Noe’s incendiary Climax.
Howard, in tandem with her character, throws herself wholeheartedly into the performance, with much of the theatrical workshop scenes boasting the flavour of improvisation. One sequence, in which Madeline delivers a harrowing rendition of an argument with her mother, is shrieking and unhinged right up until the point that Howard simply empties her expression to a blank canvas of a face, as if turning off the flow of a tap. It’s a terrific performance.
The two adult female performances, from Parker and July, are equally measured. Parker is tremendous as a woman who likes to portray the facade of control, but always seems as if she’s on the verge of her own crumbling breakdown. The light in her eyes at every flash of creativity is compelling, but also conveys her near sociopathic disregard for the actors she sees as tools. In contrast, July’s jittering mother never seems to have a handle on what’s happening. For Madeline, these women present opposing sides of a maternal coin.
It’s appropriate that Madeline’s Madeline, with its biting commentary about the potentially exploitative power of boundary-pushing art, is so willing to push boundaries itself. The third act, in particular, is a fragmented and ever so slightly messy slice of anarchy that puts a cherry on the top of this wild and unruly film. It’s imperfect and misshapen, but that’s what makes its unique brand of nightmare so compelling.
Dir: Josephine Decker
Scr: Josephine Decker
Cast: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July, Sunita Mani, Lisa Tharps, Curtiss Cook
Prd: Krista Parris, Elizabeth Rao
DOP: Ashley Connor
Music: Caroline Shaw
Run time: 93 mins
Madeline’s Madeline is in UK cinemas from 10th May.