With Madeline’s Madeline, Josephine Decker leaps into the shortlist of America’s best contemporary directors.
Josephine Decker’s 2014 one-two punch of Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely immediately announced the arrival of a major filmmaking talent, one whose tactile, impressionistic suspense generated intense moods while also crafting characters with unspoken depths that made them compelling and meaningful beyond their usefulness to the plot. With Madeline’s Madeline, though, she leaps into the shortlist of America’s best contemporary directors, pulling off the impressive feat of innovating in two of the most static, thoroughly covered genres, those of movies about making art and of identity crises between actors and their characters. The film’s first images out of focus, a warm brown haze that suggests the womb until a woman’s voice instructs “You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.”
That line is spoken to Madeline (Helena Howard), a teenager in an experimental acting class. It is meant as a criticism, not an observation, noting that Madeline is not fully committed to her exercise. Embodying a cat is just one of the tasks Madeline and her colleagues must perform throughout the film, and their teacher, Evangeline (Molly Parker), pushes them to not simply mimic behaviors or gestures but to become what they are told to play. This is as stale as method acting stereotypes get, but Evangeline puts her students through such rigorous paces that their fully sublimated, primal performances break the mold of hackneyed actor jokes. Madeline in particular so immerses herself in her work that scenes flit in and out of her perspective as she transforms into the animals she plays, though her hybridized form in such moments likewise speaks to the holes that Evangeline spots in her performances.
Madeline’s elaborate visions of transformation make a cartoonish spectacle of losing oneself to a part, but their elaborate goofiness presages the role that the girl’s age takes in informing her flights of blurred identity. Madeline is not someone confronted with the permeability of her conception of self but rather a child still forming that sense of her identity. The film’s look, eschewing the flattening tones of digital in favor of pulsating red hazes and highlights of bold color, reflect Madeline’s committed but nonetheless whimsical view of performance. At times she can be downright reckless in her play, as when she tests her believability by leaping into her mother Regina’s (Miranda July) car after class urging her to drive off, collapsing into giggles when the woman nearly has a panic attack.
Decker carefully reveals the complicated facets of Regina and Madeline’s relationship over the course of the film. July plays Regina with a skittish edge that the girl’s acting exacerbates. Gradually, Regina displays more and more paranoid, judgmental tendencies, as in an early, nightmarish scene where Madeline invites some boys over and puts on a porn video. Regina busts them in the act and proceeds to demand they all sit there and watch it, shouting at her daughter and demanding the terrified boys stay where they are. At once scared and demanding of her child, Regina never voices her anxieties over being a single mom but acts them out in baffled, controlling ways that are only fleetingly explained in feverish glimpses of past violence by both mother and daughter.
Madeline’s mixed race also plays a role in how Regina views her child. Indeed, Regina’s inability to relate to Madeline stems as much from her daughter’s race as her mental health. Decker teases out this thread in subtle ways; in one scene, the two lie in a park staring wistfully at the sky, the sound of Madeline’s calm breathing filling the soundtrack. Then, Regina absentmindedly reaches over and plays with her daughter’s kinky hair, and suddenly Madeline’s breathing grows deeper and more tense. But Regina’s muted discomfort and sense of alienation from her child has nothing on the way that Evangeline treats Madeline. The girl clearly looks up to her teacher, almost certainly more than she does her mother, but Evangeline slowly reveals an artistically predatory nature with her. Madeline has nightmares, or perhaps repressed memories, of past traumas that Evangeline finds so fascinating that she pulls out notepads every time the two are alone and insists that the teenager tell her more about them. Evangeline dances around mentioning Madeline’s race outright, but she so clearly views the girl as exotic that she simply takes the girl’s life just as readily as she takes that of an ex-con she brings into a class to talk about his experiences before having the students act out his story.
Evangeline’s appropriations culminate in a climax that breaks the impressionistic style for an unvarnished, blunt look at Madeline forced to act out the traumas that her teacher had recorded as the girl’s classmates realize in real time that things have gone too far. It’s a harrowing sequence, one that stylistically breaks from the rest of the film even as it ties together all of the film’s threads. Yet even in a moment of horrifying debasement, there is the sense that Madeline is asserting control. The finale is not unlike the “Be Black, Baby” segment from Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom!, albeit not from the perspective of the terrified audience but the empowered performers. It is here that Madeline’s Madeline makes its boldest innovation, revising post-Persona narratives of acting exposing the indefinite nature of the self to suggest that acting can be a crucial way to find, not lose, one’s identity.