Director: Josephine Decker
Cast: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July
Watch Madeline’s Madeline online in the UK: MUBI UK / Curzon Home Cinema
Madeline’s Madeline is the latest from experimental filmmaker Josephine Decker, who has previously directed experimental psychological thriller Butter on the Latch (2013), and the equally experimental Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014). Like her other works, Madeline’s Madeline is very much a film that may divide audiences, with some viewers finding its Avant Garde surreal style too much to handle. However, this is a film that is very brave and bold in its portrayal of mental illness and is remarkable for Helena Howard’s powerful performance as the emotionally troubled Madeline.
The film follows Madeline, a lonely teenager who is part of a professional acting ensemble creating an improvised theatre performance about the Three Little Pigs. The troupe is led by the charismatic Evangeline (Molly Parker), who encourages Madeline to come out from her shell. Madeline is a natural performer, and she throws herself into improvising being a cat, or a sea turtle, crawling and purring around (whether she be at the theatre, home or at a party). Her mother, Regina (Miranda July), doesn’t understand Madeline’s passion and often starts arguments over petty little things.
Madeline grows closer to Evangeline, and she confesses to Evangeline that she had a dream in which she placed a hot iron on her mother. Evangeline decides to create a project centred around the dream. During one rehearsal, Madeline has a breakdown. We discover that Madeline has recently been in a psychiatric ward, and her prescription has run out. Regina believes that the project may be counterproductive for Madeline and may be doing more harm than good. Soon, Evangeline is bringing Regina into the sessions, and all three are having to face their demons.
Madeline’s Madeline has a dreamlike quality to it, and it is never entirely clear whether what we see on screen is actually happening or part of Madeline’s imagination. Scenes start suddenly and end just as suddenly, with the plot unfolding loosely and freely on the screen. Decker seems less interested in the traditional construction of a narrative and reveals information in a gradual and undramatic way; where more formally structured films would have made a big deal out of the reveal of Madeline’s condition, Decker allows it to be revealed in an almost ambiguous fashion. Madeline is not defined by her mental illness.
As stated, the film may not be to everyone’s tastes. Often, it is quite hard to follow the action as the distinction between art and life becomes dramatically blurred. And those who find the whole world of theatre pretentious will probably be frustrated. However, this isn’t a film about acting, but about capturing a young woman’s extraordinary perception of the world. To see the complex, flawed and very human character of Madeline on screen is a refreshing sight, and many young women who encounter similar issues will most likely be reassured to see their stories and struggles portrayed so authentically. Often, mental illness is depicted in a very poor, misunderstood fashion. The film doesn’t mock Madeline but rather tries to express how those who suffer from these conditions try to cope in the world.
The strength of Madeline’s Madeline lies in its brilliant performances by the three central leads. Parker and July are always a joy to watch on the big screen, and their characters are well developed, which allows them to disappear into their roles. Howard disappears into her role too, and is so vibrant and full of life that we can hardly take our eyes off the screen; she demands our attention and gets every iota of it. With a groundbreaking performance like this one under her belt, the sky’s the limit for Howard.
Overall, Madeline’s Madeline is an experience like no other. An experimental and surreal delight, and, most importantly, a celebration of identity. Like a wonderfully vivid dream, Madeline’s Madeline is impossible for forget.
Madeline’s Madeline is out now in UK cinemas and on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.