Reality is a fickle thing. It requires the individual to trust that the world they engage with is the truth. Undeniably, what defines “truth” and “reality” is subjective due to perception. If perception is muddled, warped, or otherwise hindered, then the wall between truth and imagination comes tumbling down. Writer/director Josephine Decker examines the pliable nature of reality in Madeline’s Madeline, a full-on sensory assault that challenges the therapeutic nature of art through the chaos of an unstable mind.
Troubled teen Madeline (Helena Howard) is always on the outside, looking in on others. Perhaps that’s why she enjoys her time working with director Evangeline (Molly Parker) and her performative dance collective. Their work is about inhabiting the moment as it occurs, being present, and exploring the world of imagination. Taking a shine to Madeline, Evangeline encourages her to utilize her troubled past and combative relationship with her mother, Regina (Miranda July), as inspiration for their upcoming production. What results is an exploration of self from the viewpoint of a girl whose reality holds on by a loose tether, threatening to destroy everything all three women hold dear.
Before the first line of dialogue is uttered by Okwui Okpokwasili’s Nurse, the audience is immediately clued in that Decker’s developed something unique in conjunction with cinematographer Ashley Connor (The Miseducation of Cameron Post). Rather than a clean fade-in, the image is muddled with shapes blurred as though being seen through a daze. The audience can see that Nurse has moved from a curtain, not a door, but can’t clearly see the curtain through the swimming dark that surrounds the view. Even when Nurse’s face takes up the screen, patches of haze and light distort our view of her, making the scene difficult to take in. Nurse then speaks directly to us, setting the stage for what’s to come. Though it may initially seem like philosophical gibberish, these opening lines, combined with the visual design, set the stage for the whole of Madeline: a Russian nesting doll-like artistic piece: the camera floating between individuals as though nestled on the shoulders of another, clarity of focus dependent solely on Madeline’s mental clarity, sound ranging from simple and natural to overbearingly irregular, and time seemingly unshackled from nature’s constraints as if in a perpetual dream. Decker’s artistic vision appears utterly devoid of focus on the surface, however, a closer examination reveals a deep brilliance as she utilizes every aspect of cinema’s strengths to create a film whose internal performative nature crafts an unexpectedly grander tale bound to challenge audiences’ conception of cinematic storytelling.
Much like the world within Madeline’s Madeline, Decker’s creative process was a collaborative one. She developed the story by working with Donna di Novelli, and locked it down by working with story consultant Gail Segal, story editor Sharon Mashihi, and dramaturg Alexandra Tatarsky. More importantly, however, she entrusted the on-screen narrative development to her performers, specifically newcomer Howard. Nothing within Madeline specifically dictates what disorder or disability Madeline possesses, requiring Howard to present her own interpretation for the audience to make their own subjective judgements. What results is a singular, breakout performance that’s unflinchingly raw, evocative, and pure. Similarly, as the maternal figures of Regina and Evangeline engage with Madeline, the actors’ performances react to Howard’s infusion of natural chaos in seemingly organic ways, making them feel far more instinctive than instructed. In the end, the performances within Madeline instill an unshakeable doubt about the truth of the story. Is Madeline simply ill or is her illness a byproduct of the illness of others who are closest to her? What is truth and what is personal truth? Did we witness the tale of a girl or a tale from the girl? Questions that Decker’s Madeline – in brilliant defiance – refuses to answer.
Without question, Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is bold and inspired. Combining performative art, discombobulating cinematography, and a dream-like narrative, Madeline successfully keeps the audience simultaneously off keel and absolutely enthralled. Anchored by Howard’s exceptional portrayal, Madeline’s Madeline will enrapture audiences, offering a breathtaking, challenging cinematic experience unlike anything else in cinema in 2018. If Decker’s initial dialogue is as informative as it is demonstrative to the whole of Madeline, then the metaphor the film represents – that of identity at the crossroads of madness – is worthy of the countless discussions Madeline’s Madeline are bound to create.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.