When I take notes during a screening, I’m mostly scribbling down details or stray observations that I hope will be significant in helping me unpack the film when I write about it later. During Madeline’s Madeline, I had no idea what to write because filmmaker Josephine Decker’s cinematic language was completely foreign to me. Experimental cinema is a huge blind spot for me, but I’ve watched enough of it to know that Madeline’s Madeline isn’t that. Not strictly. I could see a narrative taking shape, but, formally, the usual giveaways – e.g. camera placement, shot composition and editing – weren’t telling me what I needed to know. Was this a dream? Was this the fractured perspective of a mentally ill protagonist? Or was this all some bizarre immersive theater piece that’s bled into the day-to-day lives of its performers?
It was probably about ten minutes into the film that I jotted down the only coherent thought in my head: “kitten”. This was in reference to sixteen-year-old Madeline (Helena Howard) role playing as a house cat in an apartment she shares with a woman I correctly assumed was her mother (Miranda July), and I suppose I wrote it down because I thought the cat motif would pay off somewhere down the line. Or maybe the cat was a metaphor of some sort, which would explain why the line “This is just a metaphor” is repeated throughout the film.
My next note was “disorienting”, which was a big ol’ wave of the white flag. From that point forward, I gave up waiting for this film to resemble anything I’d seen before, and surrendered my senses to Decker’s sui generis form of storytelling. Having walked into the film as blind as possible (I’d forgotten all details from the festival program’s summary, and wasn’t familiar with Decker’s past work), I was wide open and, aside from strong reactions from a few fellow critics (like this), totally unprejudiced. It’s a rare situation to find oneself in as a film critic, and, it turns out, the perfect conditions for Madeline’s Madeline to wreak maximum mental havoc. I walked out of the film intellectually addled, but emotionally exhilarated by Decker’s considerable passion and craft. Looking over my notes and writing about it now, I’m unashamed to throw my hands up and plead confusion after one sitting. I’d give away my entire Sundance (sans Spike Lee’s Pass Over) for one experience like this.
For filmmakers looking to knock their viewers silly, they’re not going to find a more bewildering setting than the world of immersive theater. The movie, told from Madeline’s perspective (one we later learn is moderated by medication of an unspecified nature), has a quicksilver personality that darts from elation to fury to despair with scarce provocation. When Madeline’s exploring with her theater group, you roll with these wild mood swings because this is the kind of baffling shit that goes down in experimental theater rehearsals. But Decker applies the same volatile aesthetic to Madeline’s non-rehearsal interactions with her mother. Conversations get fragmented. There are cuts within scenes that suggest we’re missing crucial bits of information. For a while, I was convinced that Decker intended the film to be taken as a semi-lucid dream because it’s rarely coherent in a classical filmmaking sense, and often drops in a sound collage of voices that repeat phrases from earlier in the movie.
It wasn’t until later in the film, when Madeline gets drunk at a party thrown by her director, Evangeline, (Molly Parker), that Decker’s film cools down and begins to resemble a conventional drama. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is also the most disturbing scene in the movie, giving us significant cause to worry if anyone truly has Madeline’s best interests at heart. Up until this moment, we’re not sure what to make of her mother, who is prone to rages and brazenly flouts all kinds of boundaries (when she catches Madeline watching a porno in her dad’s room with friends, she makes them all sit down and watch it together with her in the room); meanwhile, Evangeline is beginning to feel more possessive of her young protégé. There’s enough push-pull going on in Madeline’s head; the last thing she needs is to be caught in an emotional tug-of-war between the two adults she trusts most (to the extent that she’s capable of trusting anyone or anything).
This parenting conflict comes to a head in the film’s final set piece, wherein the theater troupe essentially liberates themselves from their director/captor. Like most of what’s come before, this sequence makes dazzling emotional sense. Whether this declaration of independence signals a sea change in Madeline’s life or is simply a blessed moment of clarity is left to the viewer to decide. All I can safely assert after one viewing is this: Decker and Howard are formidable talents, and Madeline’s Madeline is a must for anyone who cares about the future of this medium.