Madeline’s Madeline

What happens when mental illness and improvisational theatre become entwined… not a question you were expecting…but in Madeline’s Madeline, highly regarded independent filmmaker Josephine Decker brings all the force of her talent to exploring the vortex of realities and how they can be created. 

The film opens with a nurse leaning into camera, “Everything you’re experiencing is a metaphor” and indeed nothing in this world is solid, with “sense and nonsense” always in the frame. This is a journey into experimental filmmaking right from the outset. There will be some in the audience who simply won’t have the patience for the relentlessly distorted lava lamp cinematography and disjointed, fragmented narrative, zooming in and out of the disturbed mind of the film’s central character.

If you can, however, allow Decker’s filmic vision to grow into itself beyond the somewhat self conscious and laboured opening 30 minutes, you will find yourself engaged in what becomes a tense and immersive exploration of life as performance, the appropriation of reality and psychological vulnerability. The art imitating life imitating art loop just went into overdrive. It comes as no surprise that Decker spent time working and studying with experimental theatre companies named Pig Iron theatre and The School of Making Thinking prior, and that she utilised the very same creative processes in developing the script, just like the premise of the film itself. 

Set in contemporary New York, teenager Madeline; played with ferocious sincerity by hugely talented debutante Helena Howard, is clearly experiencing mental health issues and caught in a troubled relationship with her mother (played by Miranda July). She joins an experimental theatre company led by director Evangeline (Molly Parker) and during the process of creating a piece of theatre through improvisation, the lines of creation, appropriation and obsession are redrawn. 

Madeline is in the grip of a whole range of teenage anxieties, while pushing back against her mother, she is beginning to explore her own precocious sexuality and power and clearly suffering from unnamed mental illness. She finds some respite and outlet through acting, though the maternal influence of Evangeline also starts to take its toll on her, as the theatre director becomes increasingly fixated on Madeline and her life. The improvisational process is used to extract greater and greater levels of intimacy from the vulnerable teenager. What starts as creative process progressively becomes distorted and dark. The final scenes are really quite exceptional in both the staging and in terms of the narrative climax, with distant echoes of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man.

This is an important film. Josephine Decker, (writer and director) said to be utilising a “new grammar of narrative” by the New York Times, leads an almost exclusively female driven production, cinematographer Ashley Connor, producers Krista Paris and Elizabeth Rao are joined by composer Caroline Shaw and the very fine trio of female leads in showcasing some burgeoning and fierce talent. It’s exciting to see filmmaking that challenges in this way. Helena Howard is exceptional, natural, and resolutely focused in her role as Madeline. Decker’s vision is ambitious and innovative, from the intense liquid cinematography, which places the often woozy camera at the centre of the action, a character in itself, to the delving surreal imagery (morphing sea turtles) and strands of psychological narrative tied together visually. Though at times, frustratingly, there are elements that are clunky and indulged, and the balance between inventive and irritating doesn’t always fall favourably.

★★★

Jacinta Stringer

In cinemas and MUBI from the 10th of May

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