Early in Madeline’s Madeline, a character says to the camera: “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor.” The woman is speaking to Madeline (Helena Howard), a teenage actor in a New York City theater company, as well as to the film’s audience. A tension is immediately established, as it isn’t clear how seriously one’s supposed to take the declaration. Is the sentence existential, a gesture of self-important actor-speak, a disclosure of intention on the part of the filmmakers, or all or neither? This lack of clarity—this murky realm in which artistic and spontaneous life experiences converge—is the film’s subject as well as the driving obsession of writer-director Josephine Decker.
Madeline is an astonishingly intense and fluid actor who possesses a paradoxical talent of losing control of her emotions on demand, throwing her family and collaborators off their axes. As with many gifted artists, particularly prodigies with an insufficient ratio of experience to talent, Madeline is wracked with self-consciousness and given to testing her boundaries, especially with her mother, Regina (Miranda July), and director, Evangeline (Molly Parker), who are in conflict for Madeline’s affection. Decker similarly thrashes against the fences of her art. Madeline and Decker are respectively attempting to explode the narrative strictures of theater and filmmaking, utilizing strands of plot as buoys bobbing up and down in a kind of roiling ocean of emotional formalism. They’re aiming for unbridled subjectivity—the performative and “achieved” equivalent of free writing.
Susan Sontag once suggested that new art forms must be created at a price. The author fashionably distrusted “classical” modes of storytelling, though she admitted to the comforts of plots that orient us with reassuring ease. To deviate from classical orientation in drama, which involves multiple acts that offer character development and various crises on schedule, is to risk alienating audiences with incoherence. Decker braves this risk, plunging her audience into Madeline’s psyche, with the opening line about metaphor offered as quick and cutesy preparation. The filmmaker also aggressively violates the unspoken law in drama of tonal modulation, as nearly every scene in Madeline’s Madeline is pitched to a point of sexual hysteria, occasionally recalling François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H.
Decker blurs the lines between Madeline’s dreams, art, and what in a conventional film would be called the objective reality of the narrative. The film’s images are often blurry and gauzy and sequences are sometimes slowed down so much that one expects the characters to calcify in place. These devices suggest vagueness, inspiring our distrust. Did Madeline assault Regina, or was it a dream, which Evangeline callously works into an upcoming production? But such particulars don’t matter. Emotional violence exists in one form or another, casting a pall over the film that’s exacerbated by the endless barrage of other formal devices. The camera is often moving, alternating between first-person compositions and close-ups that are so close as to seemingly threaten to reveal the pores within the pores of the actors’ skins. And the soundtrack is no less busy. We frequently hear a heavy, stylized breathing that suggests the constant presence of Madeline’s consciousness. The breathing and the first-person shots are often out of sync, alluding to multiple entities that might be be cohabitating within Madeline and thusly literalizing the notion of the actor as everyone and no one.
Decker is a unique and dazzling artist, most notably for her troubling and daring commitment to everything that drives her characters. There’s little difference between Madeline and Decker’s artistic energies, as the former suggests an avatar for the latter, which is to say that Decker possesses her protagonist’s narcissism. True to the implications of its title, the devotional insularity of Madeline’s Madeline is suffocating, which is appropriate for a film about a mentally imbalanced teenage artist but suffocating nonetheless. Decker admirably doesn’t guard herself, understanding Sontag’s notion of the demands that must be placed on audiences so as to expand art.
One may still wish that Decker had dialed the “art” down a bit. When Regina attempts to give Madeline a sex talk in their car as it’s parked outside Evangeline’s rehearsal space, we’re made aware of the thematic perfectness of the composition, in which a reflection of a building in the vehicle’s passenger window obscures the mother and daughter’s faces, glibly physicalizing their disconnection. When Regina is initially asked by Evangeline to join Madeline in rehearsal, the irony is so moving—Regina thinks she’s being accepted as she’s dissected and ridiculed—that Decker’s impatience is almost unforgiveable. The formal gymnastics trump the emotional audacity of the moment, though Decker reprises the scene and does it justice near the film’s climax, when Madeline reenacts her assault of Regina with a fever that bridges empathy and contempt, as Regina watches. Madeline authentically loses control of her performance, her shrewd embodiment of Regina morphing into a paranoid vision of Regina’s rejection of her.
This moment, for the way it collapses multiple realities, is a breakthrough for Decker. The film’s ending, however, is symptomatic of her cloying tendencies, which take a page here from the adult-bashing playbook of YA films. Madeline and the troupe stage a rebellion against Evangeline, castigating her for exploiting their emotions, which leads to a beautiful and irritating sequence that bridges a haunted house of cats with a dance party in the streets. Decker suggests a vision of artistic creation as a democracy that fuses multiple consciousness to achieve transcendence. This revelation clarifies the intentions of Decker’s wild aesthetic while casting a pat light on the film’s most challenging and evocative scenes. Madeline is the film’s greatest egomaniac, yet she’s let off the hook while the adult who’s upfront in her intentions is vilified. Yet, without Evangeline, Madeline’s art would have no focus, her relationship with Regina would remain un-cauterized, and Madeline’s Madeline itself wouldn’t exist. Art is a riddle of democracy and tyranny that knows no answer. Decker understands this tragedy, but her quest for freedom takes her down an avenue of borrowed whimsy.