A sea turtle crawls up the beach, ejaculating guttural sounds. Or maybe it’s a cat. Or maybe you’re the cat. But you’re not, you’re inside the cat. And are those your hands, or are they the sea turtle’s? In a disjointed, blurry haze like an Instagram filter gone wrong, a flood of cut-out faces, animalistic growls, and one searing iron make up your memories, and who would want those twisted things? In Josephine Decker’s new film, Madeline’s Madeline, she asks: can anyone tell someone else’s story? Should they?
18-year-old Madeline (Helena Howard) has just returned home to her mother Regina (Miranda July) from a six-week stay in a psychiatric hospital. She was admitted for an unspecified mental illness, and at least one violent episode. The illness presents as bipolar, but is perhaps something more, though it’s never explicitly mentioned. Regina is repressed to the point of stasis, and, while not in denial about Madeline’s condition, struggles constantly to help her. Madeline’s father isn’t in the picture, and the only remnant of him is a dirty basement covered with pornography.
Madeline’s only escape, her only therapy that provides an outlet for her extreme emotional breaks, is an avant-garde theatre class led by Evangeline (Molly Parker). Evangeline is an upper-class, well-off woman whose desire to rescue her marginalized students through immersive theatre belies her real ambitions. In this class, which increasingly feels cultish in its ability to cultivate her dependence on it, Madeline is encouraged to imitate and inhabit different creatures, personalities, and to explore the dark dreams that distance her from her mother.
Madeline’s Madeline doesn’t only address the effects of mental illness on the person primarily afflicted with it, or their immediate family (though both are certainly addressed), but it’s really about how vulnerable sufferers of mental illness can be to those that want to trigger, co-opt, and exploit them. Molly Parker’s Evangeline, ever the sweet-smiled, best-intentioned villain, plays to this in spades. She brings visceral pain out of her students, triggering them, not in an attempt to bring about catharsis or any kind of healing, but to appropriate their stories and struggles for the good of her production – to “deepen the work”. She plays Madeline and Regina against each other in such a subtle and insidious way that even though you, the viewer, probably know it’s going on, you almost don’t notice it until it’s too late. She parades Madeline around her family and friends with a kind of self-satisfied smirk that you can’t keep yourself from wanting to see wiped off, but when it is, and it does happen in a way that’s so outside reality but still so real-seeming, it’s somehow too much.
The way that Decker portrays Madeline’s vacillations between her overcharged emotions forces the viewer into her disoriented state. After each rehearsal with Evangeline, you can see and feel Madeline’s grip on reality slip further, even as her ever-exasperated mother tries to reel her back in. Footage that feels as real as any documentary, as it documents Madeline accosting strangers on a busy Manhattan street in a pig mask or the cringe-inducing confrontations between Madeline and Regina. It’s here that Helena Howard’s performance really comes to the forefront, because she truly loses herself in Madeline’s mind and produces something almost otherworldly. Similarly, the tense, tightly-wound Regina is a huge departure for the free-spirited Miranda July, herself known for avant-garde art of every sort, but she does an outstanding job with the Regina character as well, especially in a late series of scenes where Regina is invited to the acting class and you can feel her struggle to express herself, while Madeline stews with jealousy in the background.
Comparing anything subversive or opaque to a David Lynch project, especially in a year that featured a Twin Peaks revival, is a cliche, but it’s an inescapable one when you’re faced with a film with such a nightmarish, disorientingly self-reflective smog and a large number of animal masks. But there’s as much Sean Baker in Madeline’s Madeline as there is Lynch, and its uncomfortable silences and intense, familiar-seeming breakdowns remind me of nothing so much as Baker’s The Florida Project, which was my favourite movie of last year that didn’t star Timothee Chalamet. Both films feature an explosive debut performance from a young female lead (Howard here, and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project) and are so well-observed that it often hurts.
Decker has built something with Madeline’s Madeline that certainly isn’t here to inspire hope, or solutions to any problem. There’s a really cynical reading of it that suggests that Madeline has been driven over the edge, long past the point of no return. But I think there’s a hopeful reading as well, where Madeline has finally learned how to tell her own stories, and protect them. It’s a little like watching one of the X-Men controlling her powers for the first time, and the last ‘performance’ is, like this whole movie, a well-controlled nightmare, complete with an absurd dance sequence.
Madeline’s Madeline manages to do what so many films try and fail to – it walks a tenuous line between meticulous craft and an observed, improvised, free-form experience. It often feels like you’re watching both the film, and the making of the film at the same time. I’m not certain if it’s the revolutionary piece that many reviews have asserted that it is (time will make that clear), but I am convinced that, if nothing else, Madeline’s Madeline is a showcase for it’s lead actor, and is the first of many outstanding performances to come for Helena Howard. If her name isn’t in the conversation for any acting award for which she’s eligible this year, it’ll be a shame. Madeline’s Madeline is a tough watch that I imagine will be a lot tougher for those directly affected by mental illness, but I think it’s ultimately a nightmare worth having, if only for the relief of waking up.
Madeline’s Madeline premiered at Fantasia at 7:30pm on July 30, with a second screening at 3:30pm on August 1.