“The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s. You are not the cat — you are inside the cat.” So begins Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline,” an ecstatically disorienting experience that defines its terms right from the start and then obliterates any trace of traditional film language, achieving a cinematic aphasia that allows Decker to redraw the boundaries between the stories we tell and the people we tell them about. The result is an experimental movie with the emotional tug of a mainstream hit, a fragmented coming-of-age drama that explores the vast space between Hollis Frampton and Greta Gerwig in order to find something truly new and ineffably of its time. This is one of the boldest and most invigorating American films of the 21st century.
“Madeline’s Madeline” is essentially a movie about its own making, a dazzling hall of mirrors that reflects upon itself until every plot point becomes a commentary on Decker’s process. First and foremost, it’s a movie about single mother Regina (the multi-talented Miranda July), her irrepressible teenage daughter Madeline (newcomer Helena Howard, a major talent and utter force of nature who will inevitably be cast as an X-Man in the next five years), and the unspecified mental illness that’s driven a wedge between them.
An iconoclastic artist in her own right, July is brilliantly cast against type as someone who desperately lacks the ability to express herself. Madeline has just come home from her most recent stint at the mental hospital, and Regina is struggling to get through to her. Her maternal concern erodes further into outright paranoia each time Madeline refuses a meal or obsessively cleans her hands with Purell, and Regina’s helplessness only reinforces the distance she feels from her daughter. It’s unclear how race factored into their relationship before — July is white, Howard is biracial — but now it feels like another barrier between them (Regina and Madeline never speak to this directly, as Decker has far more interesting ways of stressing the divide).
As if Regina doesn’t already feel disconnected, Madeline has started getting really into the acting class she’s taking with one of those immersive theater troupes in the Village. You know, the kind where they make you pretend to be a turtle (cut to a POV shot of Madeline dragging her shell across a beach) or re-enact your dreams (cue a dozen eager strangers lending their bodies to Madeline’s subconscious, bringing to life the nightmare in which she scalded her mother with a steam iron).
There’s something vaguely cultish about Evangeline, the clean-living Park Slope cliché who runs the place (Molly Parker), just as there’s something creepily opportunistic about her creative infatuation with her beautiful, brown-skinned student and the scars she brings to class. Little by little, the strange new project they’re working on — the one that’s supposed to be an equal collaboration between everyone in the troupe — starts to become the Madeline show.
That process reflects Decker’s own, as “Madeline’s Madeline” (and its ultimate focus on Howard) was self-evidently born from the freeform exercises she conducted with her cast; this is a movie where every scene feels newly discovered but not quite improvised, and it’s impossible to watch without simultaneously imagining how it was made. Whether following Madeline into her absent father’s porn-filled basement, or accompanying her to a barbecue in Brooklyn where the frizzy-haired girl is paraded around with a disquieting sense of pride, Decker infuses each mesmeric episode with an unshakable degree of self-consciousness.
Ashley Connor’s staggeringly fluid cinematography favors a shallow focus, the periphery of her frames smudged like glasses in the rain so that we’re always aware of what it is that we’re not seeing. A symphony of angelic voices and animalistic grunts overlap in our hears, the careful soundscape evoking Björk’s “Medulla” in how it maps the physical distance between art and the people who make it possible. In an overwhelmingly dense film that never feels as if it’s only ever doing one thing, Decker’s form never forces you to choose between the story and its very meta shadows. Our interest in Madeline’s strange journey (and in Evangeline’s hegemonic desire to co-opt it) exists comfortably with awareness of Decker working through her own anxieties as a storyteller, the exploitative appetite of all good artists, and the ethics of bending other people to your will. The parallel lines of thought work together like train tracks, allowing “Madeline’s Madeline” to not only question if it’s right to tell someone else’s story, but also to ask if it’s even possible.
It’s a question that Decker punctuates with a transcendent climactic sequence that marries the primal imagery of David Lynch with the intimate theatricality of the immersive “Sleep No More,” a musical feat of editing and performance that reaches into rarely explored dimensions of film’s potential. Starting with a blisteringly raw monologue that Madeline delivers to her mom and then exploding into a dance sequence that crystallizes the power of Decker’s stream-of-consciousness style, the last 20 minutes of this movie are as visceral and exhilarating as anything you might find in “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
“You don’t know myself,” Madeline snaps at someone, or everyone. “I am being myself.” Decker is not the cat; she is inside the cat. She is creating a new kind of emotionally direct cinema that explores the limits of control and questions how, in an age when identity has become a veritable bloodsport, movies can reconcile the seemingly incompatible forces of empathy and representation. How can they function as both a window and a mirror at a time when they so urgently need to be both? How can artists defy the toxic idea that people should only be able to tell their own stories, if telling someone else’s story is an inherently parasitic act?
“Madeline’s Madeline” attempts to reconcile those disparate notions with such breathtaking fearlessness that it can be hard to tell if Decker is more of an explorer or a daredevil. She’s grappling with big questions, and she’s not going to solve them in the span of 90 minutes, no matter how stuffed each scene might be. But that doesn’t matter, because what she finds is more important than any half-assed answer; what she finds is a compelling reason for everybody to keep looking.
“Madeline’s Madeline” premiered in the NEXT section of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.