LFF 2018: Madeline’s Madeline Review
One look at the trailer for Madeline’s Madeline should tell you not to expect a narrative that runs through the standard three act structure. Although less formal than films like Opening Night and Black Swan, Josephine Decker’s film delves into the fractured psyche of an aspiring young actress whose divide between character and reality is slowly being eroded. Decker attempts to be more ambitious than just interrogating her state of mind, posing questions about identity and who does and doesn’t have the right to tell Madeline’s story.
Madeline (Helena Howard) is biracial, living with her white mother Regina (Miranda July) who is overly protective about her daughter, although perhaps with good reason. She is part of a New York acting class and set to take the lead role of a forthcoming play under the tutorship of Evangeline (Molly Parker). When Madeline isn’t taking part in immersive class exercises with the group she brings them home where we see her rolling around purring and pretending to be a cat.
We learn Madeline has been diagnosed with mental health issues and previously spent some time in hospital receiving treatment. Part of the reason for her current instability is because she has stopped taking prescribed medication without her mother realising. This is coupled by the fact she is also being covertly manipulated by Evangeline into drawing on her turbuelnt home life so it can be used as the centre piece of the play. At times we can’t be completely sure what we are seeing is fantasy or reality, mirroring Madeline’s own experience.
Outside of the thin plot Decker elusively constructs the film to represent the increased state of psychosis Madeline is experiencing. Perhaps it is the budget, or merely a stylistic choice from Decker, but either way the tiresome impressionistic techniques she uses are annoyingly pretentious and do little to serve our understanding of Howard’s character. It comes as no surprise then that much of what we see is improvised and its loose-fit form does little to detract from that fact.
We are told on a number of occasions by a dreamlike voiceover that this is all “just a metaphor.” The elusive nature of Decker’s directorial style means she dances around the ideas of race and authorship and only when others start to question Evangeline’s motives does it finally come out into the open. This is with a short while left in the film before Decker rounds things off with an indecipherable arty flourish. Any commentary about Madeline’s father or Evangeline’s unspoken black husband is mostly deemed superfluous.
A major plus is Howard who is a compelling screen presence. When you factor in this is her first role and she is heavily improvising it’s an extremely impressive introduction to her talent. She effortlessly transitions between Madeline’s mood swings and her performance builds towards an intensely emotional climax that sees her immersed completely in the moment. There is a really good film somewhere in here waiting to come out but in its current state it mostly feels like a missed opportunity.
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