The critics’ real job is to act as an interpreter, to give the reader a lens through which to approach the art. This is the highest calling of the critic, not to recommend what’s worth your money this weekend or to lob snark at trash. A critic bridges the gap between the filmmaker and the audience.
Madeline’s Madeline stymies the interpreter in me. Not because there is nothing to interpret – the film is dense with meaning and metaphor and bursting with exciting craft in service of emotion and story – but rather because there’s so little gap. Madeline’s Madeline is the most directly connective movie I have seen in years, a film that is intimate in the ways it is about intimacy. With its often blurry and shaky close-up camerawork, with the astonishing sound mix that eradicates the lines between lead character Madeline’s inner and outer worlds, with its immediate and heartbreaking lead performance by newcomer Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline is a film that is in direct communion with your emotions, often bypassing logic and sense to get there.
What director Josephine Decker does with that communion between celluloid and soul is nothing short of masterful. Madeline’s Madeline is a film about so much – mental illness, mother/daughter relationships, female spaces and the power dynamics within them, coming of age, the paradox of exploitation and freedom in art – and yet it is never unfocused. Decker understands the ways all of these things interconnect; she sees the gossamer web that vibrates ‘art’ when you tap on ‘coming of age,’ the emotional highways that connect ‘mother/daughter’ with ‘female power structures’ and she dances from one concept to another, all while proving that they’re facets of the same topic.
To truly talk about Madeline’s Madeline would require a book, a work longer than the movie itself. That’s because intellectualizing what’s happening in the film takes more time, more words, than simply expressing the emotion, and Decker is extraordinary at expressing the emotion. What’s more, each layer of the movie contains more layers. Within one layer we have Madeline’s relationships with the two powerful women in her life – her mother and her director in an experimental theater project. But then within that there are other layers, like the fact that Madeline is biracial, and both of these women are with black men. The ways that black men appear in the film – Madeline’s father doesn’t, her director’s husband is domesticated – adds another layer. Within that layer is how Madeline deals with boys, especially the black boy with whom she has her first kiss. And so we go from mother/daughter to female power structures to race to sexuality to coming of age to…
And so on and so on. The emotions and the meanings fold in on themselves, enriching themselves and, with each folding, revealing new aspects.
Okay, so what the hell is this movie about anyway? That’s actually easy to answer, for a film as experimental and often elliptical as this one. Madeline is 16, turning 17, and she lives with her single mother and brother. Her father is gone, but his porn stash lives on in the basement. Madeline has a hard time in school but finds freedom in an experimental theater project, created communally but spearheaded by Evangeline. Madeline also has a hard time in her own head; she’s mentally ill and has been hospitalized, and is now on meds. She can’t always self-regulate, and she has anger and violence in her. As Evangeline sees this in the young performer she begins to make it more and more central to the show, changing the focus slowly but drastically, appropriating Madeline’s story.
But that doesn’t really explain what Madeline’s Madeline is about, just what happens. It’s like explaining a kiss – you can tell someone the mechanics and you can even make some metaphors, but it’s best experienced, and each experience is going to be different. I saw the film with a friend and she found some scenes absolutely uproarious, while the people next to us had much grimmer reactions to the same moments. I think everybody was right – the experience of watching this movie, of living these scenes, will be different for each person, will resonate in different ways.
What everyone will experience equally, I hope, is awe at the performance of Helena Howard. The actress is gorgeous and magnetic, and she expresses a range that is breathtaking. From second to second she changes, molting one emotion and exploding in another in the span of a heartbeat. The honesty in her every motion is harrowing, the openness in her eyes is touching. Howard is an absolute natural onscreen; I don’t know if she will ever again have a project that gives her so much depth and freedom, but I hope she has many, many opportunities to try and find other characters and roles that will give her those things. I want to see her in more, because if this is how good she is in her first film, what else could she accomplish with years of experience?
Howard is supported by two maternal figures, each cast wonderfully. Of special interest is the casting of art superstar Miranda July as Madeline’s mom, Regina (reigning queen!). Arthouse audiences will identify July with her quirky movies, but Regina is not that character; nervous, overbearing, stifled, non-artistic in the extreme, Regina is a mother so difficult only our empathy with July can make her bearable at times. But empathy comes naturally to July, and while Regina is difficult we move towards feeling for her as the film goes on. She is, like most mothers, doing her best with what she has, even if what she has is not enough. Even if her best is not enough.
Equally complicated, but in a different way, is Molly Parker as Evangeline, the director. Parker has recently been wasted in the barely watchable Lost In Space remake show, but here she is given the room to deliver a phenomenal performance. She begins the film as the soft focus positive pole to which Madeline’s magnetic energy is drawn, an artist who understands the pain in Madeline and sees how to form it into performance. But the early intimacy the two share sours; what at first seems like it could be maternal morphs into something ickier and more disturbing.
What fascinated me the most in my first viewing of this film was the exploration of the push and pull inherent in all art, but especially collaborative art. The writer or the painter communicates almost directly with the audience, but the playwrite or the actor or the filmmaker must work in concert with others. This brings depth, perspective and energy, but it also takes one person’s vision and gives it away, doles it out, dices it up.
More than that, though, all art is exploitative, as the artist uses her own life to create the art, and thus exploits those she knows and loves and hates. And she exploits herself, making herself vulnerable in ways that are terrifying. Yet that also brings freedom, healing and power. It brings understanding. It brings strength. Madeline’s Madeline ends with a sequence about this that gave me the old Stendhal Syndrome symptoms of tightening throat and burning eyes, but Decker doesn’t end the movie at the most triumphant, she takes it another few steps into something less concrete.
I’m not sure that I love the ending of the movie, as it tickles the puzzle-solving center of my brain, and I don’t think Madeline’s Madeline is a puzzle to be solved. I think it’s a series of feelings to be felt, it’s an evocation of emotion and an expression of honesty. The film was created in improvisational collaboration with the actors, much as the show at its center is created. This gives us a sense of knowing self-critique (there’s lots of art and performance world self-critique all over the movie), and adds another layer of honesty to the work. Decker isn’t telling us what this film is, she’s asking us. And that’s not the same thing as a puzzle, although it can feel like one.
And don’t even get me started on the title, which triggers my Proustian theorizing.
Roger Ebert famously called the movies ‘empathy machines,’ but few create empathy as directly as Madeline’s Madeline does. It brings us inside Madeline’s head, shows us the world as she sees it, lets us experience life as she lives it. Audacious isn’t even the word for this, there’s something revolutionary about the way this film attaches to your amygdala, mainlining meaning and emotion to the parts of you where they can take root, and grow, and thrive. To be alive and to see Madeline’s Madeline on a big screen – what a blessing this is.