Madeline's Madeline




Content dictates style here, but the mode adopted may be all too much.

Madeline's Madeline

Helena Howard


Extraordinary and overwhelming as it is, this film appears not to have arrived out of the blue. It is the work of Josephine Decker and it builds, I am told, on the ground laid in her two previous feature films, Thou Wast Mild and Lonely (2014) and Collective: Unconscious (2016). However, not to have seen these earlier works may be an advantage since it allows Madeline's Madeline to burst upon us and thus to achieve maximum impact as a stylised piece quite unlike anything else. But, while some viewers will reject this film out of hand as an excessive indulgence, for others there still remains the question of whether or not the style is so striking in itself that it dominates at the expense of the subject it seeks to illuminate.


Taken at face value, Madeline's Madeline is a portrait of a 16-year-old girl, Madeline played by Helena Howard, undergoing a mental breakdown. She is bi-racial but her father is never seen and she lives with her white mother (Miranda July) in New Jersey where she participates in drama classes involving dance run by Evangeline (Molly Parker). At these classes there is talk of students playing characters either merely from the outside or of being able to get within their heads and there's no doubt that Decker's film seeks to put us inside Madeline's head and thus to reflect her breakdown.


Stylisation is an established part of film language, but Madeline's Madeline is a genuine original because it takes this so far. You might expect to find a deliberate confusion between what is real and what is only imagined by Madeline and this is indeed present as exemplified by the early scene in which Madeline attacks her mother with an iron but which is later described as being a dream. But Decker goes so much further bringing stylisation into play not only in individual shots but also through the editing and quite remarkably in the extraordinary use of music on the soundtrack. Animal heads and masks feature too.


The unhinged world thus presented to us is one in which the phrase "This is a metaphor" recurs and the significance of that seems to reside in the fact that we feel that Decker is actually asking us to see Madeline's state as a metaphor for the chaos and confusion inherent in everyday adolescence (Madeline is after all an unexceptional teenager in being resentful of her mother's controlling ways, preoccupied with finding an opportunity to lose her virginity so that she will no longer be seen as a child and anxious to find her own identity). Furthermore, there's another layer present: in seeking to create art, Evangeline burrows into the lives of her class and uses them to serve her own ends. Quite deliberately, she appears as a figure akin to Decker herself who is here appropriating Madeline's story and forcing Howard to inhabit it.


Howard, a newcomer, has a great face and holds the screen while July (cast against type) and Parker both do good work here. It's also the case that the concept itself is interesting and one scene which shows Madeline improvising as though she were playing her own mother bursts into dramatic life. But for the rest it is the arresting style rather than the people portrayed that takes pride of place so, even if the mode adopted does not exasperate you, the value of the piece remains something of an open question. Yet the adventurous filmgoer willing to seek out this picture can rest assured that they've never seen anything like it.




Cast: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July, Jamal Batts.


Dir Josephine Decker, Pro Krista Parris and Elizabeth Rao, Screenplay Josephine Decker and Donna Di Novelli, Ph Ashley Connor, Pro Des Charlotte Royer, Ed Josephine Decker and Harrison Atkins, Music Caroline Shaw, Costumes Sarah Maiorino.


Forager Film Company/Bow & Arrow Entertainment-MUBI.
93 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 10 May 2019. Cert. 15.