Director Josephine Decker
The director chats with Ashley Connor about shooting a scene
Actress Helena Howard with director Josephine Decker
MADELEINE’S MADELEINE B+
USA (93 mi) 2018 d: Josephine Decker
The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s. You are not the cat — you are inside the cat.
―opening line spoken in a blur
This is a workshop film, developed out of innumerable improvisational rehearsals, most leading nowhere, but at some point something clicked. Revitalizing the outdated mode of Living Theater, apparently drawing the lines of what appears to be a Redux version of Rivette’s Out 1 and Jacques Rivette R.I.P. (1971), a mammoth 775-minute epic work that evolves out of theatrical rehearsals, never really preparing for the staging of a live performance, but simply putting in the work to examine one’s commitment to process, where theory supersedes reality, which takes a backseat in this film. Instead this entire film takes place between the lines, real or imagined, exploring what’s taking place inside one’s head, enamored with the idea of creation itself, with ideas spewing out of a vacuum of nothingness, drawing upon personal experience, encouraging people to reach deep within, then overpraising the outcome, pleased with the theatricality of the moment, offering rewards for the improvisational effort, though not necessarily for any meaningful breakthrough that connects with the audience. Instead it’s a series of moments, each broken down into collaborative improvisational workshops that highlight and accentuate the personalized nature of what they are doing, drawing attention to the creative process, but not necessarily leading us anywhere. It’s a unique form of theatrical experimentation, where the courage of conviction is impressive, though it’s extremely limited in terms of having an overall impact. Instead it builds a stream-of-conscious collective that is constantly changing, yet evaluated and reflected upon throughout, where the audience is intrinsically engaged, even if they don’t know how. While Rivette throws a narrative bone to the audience, using a clever board game whodunit style mentality, offering clues with accompanying detective intrigue throughout, Decker (a performance artist turned filmmaker) refuses to use any compromise measures, remaining narrative free, allowing free association techniques to weave their way through the entire film, including dramatic mood swings and more than a few queasy moments, creating a cinema of discomfort, challenging the audience to see through a maze of illusion, only occasionally offered strands of connecting tissue. Something of a head trip, people are continually placed outside their comfort zones, including the audience, but most especially the central characters who are urged to expose their innermost insecurities and fears, creating a dark palette, often overshadowed by a bold sound design that brilliantly counters what we see onscreen, offering a counterpoint, with brash percussive music composed by Caroline Shaw that includes choral music, where the film largely accumulates multiple layers of an untold story, arguably the best edited film of the year, casting a web of intrigue, emphasizing the confusion and personal horrors associated with things we feel but cannot see.
Helena Howard is Madeleine, a precocious biracial teenager who may suffer serious mental health issues, stressed out by her overprotective relationship with her mother Regina (Miranda July), causing huge mood swings of depression and futility, feeling like a caged bird that can never fly, frustrated at home, disconnected at school, hoping to find her voice through an experimental and culturally diverse theatrical troupe led by an ambitious and very pregnant white director, Evangeline (Molly Parker), who attempts to establish some degree of order through the inflicted group chaos, acting out troubled feelings as a kind of group therapy, using facial masks to hide their identity, finding situations that don’t fit, like animals that can’t speak, or people in distress that can’t escape, creating a kind of unified dance choreography, each mirroring the other. But where this all leads is unclear, as Evangeline nurtures Madeleine while continually changing her mind about how she envisions their mission, often baffling her own troupe, who work hard establishing character, only to throw it all away for something as yet unknown. The continuing thread throughout it all is Madeleine, the newest and youngest member, who seems to have the most emotionally invested, constantly encouraged by Evangeline, like a teacher’s pet, who is clearly a substitute for her own mother, yet places her in dangerous and potentially unhealthy situations. What isn’t clear is how much if this is imagined and how much is real, recalling Spike Jonze’ Being John Malkovich (1999), as the entire film could be taking place inside the mind of a distressed teenager, who is acting out her innermost feelings in imaginary ways, perhaps inventing an alternate reality, but filled with real instead of imaginary people, always placed in difficult situations, like a labyrinth, where she’s forced to find her way out. What’s real in the film are the internal feelings causing the distress, something most can easily relate to. How it’s handled, on the other hand, is starkly unique, delving into a deeply disturbing interior world, then offering untried art therapy solutions that may or may not be beneficial, much like evaluating a Montessori school against a public school, as one rigidly relies upon grades and test scores, while the other accentuates a more free-form individualized approach. Like falling into the fever dream of a rabbit hole, this impressionistic mosaic of a fractured psychology describes the many levels of artistic intent, including anxiety and self-doubt, yet underneath is a fierce independent spirit yearning for expression, inhibited and throttled somewhere along the way, growing distorted and disfigured, even grotesque, searching for a missing ingredient or healing path that wipes all obstacles out of the way, becoming a swirling symphony of voices all searching for the purity of that one grace note, like a cleansing breath, an uncluttered thought, or a moment of clarity.
Her mother shows concerns that Madeleine’s out of control, off her medication, becoming more and more unreachable, prone to making poor decisions, like an instance when she invites a few young boys into the basement to watch porn movies. All of this suggests she’s crying out for attention, growing ever more desperate, resorting to any means necessary, where the theatrical troupe becomes a means to express the inexpressible, becoming a surreal, nightmarish adventure, much like Bergman’s HOUR OF THE WOLF (1968), which is itself a struggle for personal sanity, using dreams that rise to the surface in an examination of the creative forces within. In Madeleine’s eyes, her mother, and perhaps all authority figures, are synonymous with the overcontrolling Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a cruel, overbearing, and nitpicking force of cruel dehumanization, eventually taking radical measures to drive her out. This power play may all be taking place in the deep recesses of Madeleine’s mind during a recent hospital visit to the psych ward, perhaps sedated into a state of powerlessness, where the film is a recreation of her mixed emotions, with layer upon layer of competing forces all fighting for expression. What’s perhaps most surprising is Evangeline’s interest into delving into Madeleine’s admittedly damaged personal life, making that the feature attraction of the entire troupe, which feels not just personally invasive, but more like theft, delving into racial appropriation while calling it a “group” collaboration. Yet she is thrust into the spotlight, even when it appears unhealthy to do so, where the expression of pain and disappointment is often written all over Madeleine’s face, plunged into extreme depths of emotion, from the giddiness of her first kiss to being a loner, an outcast, a primal screamer, cruelly forced to share the limelight with her own mother, immediately overshadowed by her unwelcome presence, inappropriately invited to join the theater group by Evangeline, catapulting into centerstage status, becoming the new class darling, pitting mother against daughter, forcing Madeleine to take extreme measures to claw her way back into favor. Along the way it’s a bumpy road, a glimpse into personal crisis mode, where survival instincts kick in, yet we sense an acute vulnerability, especially her degree of loneliness and isolation, often struggling with identity and self-esteem, and fighting to overcome overwhelming odds. Like Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980), this unflinching autobiographical journey may initially be misunderstood, though it’s likely to be considered among the more creative efforts in recent memory, a bold declaration of fierce independence, which feels like fighting your way out of a dream. The film is daring and unconventional to be sure, but to what end? In some ways it’s reminiscent of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), in particular the mindboggling narrative incoherence, relying upon a stream of impressionistic imagery mixed with a completely mysterious sound design, producing something obtuse and phantasmagorical, which may make sense to a few, who will love it, while the rest will simply tune it out as indecipherable. Not sure where this will end up, as it’s received much critical acclaim, but viewers are sure to be baffled by what it’s all about.