Josephine Decker has established herself as one of America’s most exciting auteurs with Madeline’s Madeline, a metafictional story about psychosis and the melding of art with life that will surely be one of the best films of the year.
It concerns a precocious young girl named Madeline (Helena Howard). Living alone with her controlling mother Regina (Miranda July) and brother, she finds solace in joining an acting troupe, headed by the impulsive Evangeline (Molly Parker). We never see any scripts or discussion of the plot — instead being subject to endless workshopping scenes. Soon Madeline becomes too enthusiastic about her work in the theatre, possibly because it gives her an outlet to express herself apart from her obsessive mother. From there we are subject to a complex female three-hander that’s so well-composed that we have no qualms already declaring it a masterpiece.
Josephine Decker showed intense promise with her last two features, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch, which also examined the female psyche with incredible rigor. Madeline’s Madeline feels like a step-up due to the improved acting and the meta-theatrical subject matter. Using avant-garde theatre as the subject, her latest feels like a necessary dramatic correlative to that art form. Additionally, the improvised feeling of the movie evokes the workshopping involved in making such plays. The works of Jaques Rivette may be an inspiration, but Decker’s style is much snappier than the French auteur, taking it into her own remarkable territory and firmly staking her place as the hottest new thing in American cinema.
The entire film rests upon the central performance of Helena Howard, in what is remarkably her first ever acting credit (she was stumbled upon by Decker at a New Jersey theatre-house). She moves between thoughtfulness and psychosis with incredible ease, giving off the impression that she has been in films like this her entire life. There are times when her complete lack of social awareness becomes extremely unbearable to watch. Expect big things for her in the future. Likewise, Molly Parker excels as the self-absorbed theatre director and Miranda July gives a great performance as the overbearing mother. The tension between the three women is constantly shifting, making the movie feel incredibly dense. This melding of female personalities brings to mind both Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Robert Altman’s 3 Women, putting Decker among extremely strong company. This dynamic is then given another deeper layer due to the fact Madeline is bi-racial while the other two women are white.
Josephine Decker’s camera is always intimate, eschewing establishing shots and tracking rigs in favour of a frantic hand-held style. This technique is perfect for the subject matter as it gets us right inside the mental state of each character. The editing, which constantly cuts but never wastes a shot, feels intuitive, making the film feel like a true work of art as opposed to a simple narrative feature. Although the work is handheld it is still very well composed — focusing tightly on character’s faces and gestures, each image becomes loaded with meaning. It shows how routine most films are. By cutting to emotion, Madeline’s Madeline is always creating a sense of forwarding momentum. These techniques also allow the themes of the movie — such as the relationship between life and art, the role of the mother, being mixed race, and mental illness — to come to the forefront. None of this is presented in a straightforward way, however, making the film resistant to tidy analysis. The effect is one of direct catharsis, joyful in its expert command of a cinematic language.
Ultimately Decker’s movie follows its own logic, the meaning of which will differ from person to person. The narrative seems to spring naturally from what we see on the screen, giving every scene a feeling of vitality. There is something elemental in the way the camera moves and the images cut together, creating a feeling of complete subjectivity that leaves the viewer breathless until the very final scene. This isn’t a movie that can be analyzed successfully in the moment; with so much going on, it should simply be experienced first. The effect is to make the movie live with the viewer until long after it is over. The final images break off from conventional narrative technique and move towards surrealism, revealing a unique arthouse vision that is impossible to pin down. The result is profound, ambiguous and unsettling, making Madeline’s Madeline nothing less than cinema at its finest.
The 68th annual Berlin International Film Festival is scheduled to take place from 15 to 25 February 2018.