Review: Madeline's Madeline
These days it’s rare to come across a movie that feels completely original in every way. So much modern media can feel derivative or deeply nostalgic. Granted, that’s not always a bad thing, but there’s something to be said for something entirely unique. It’s easy to forget sometimes that cinema can feel like a living, breathing thing. That is until a work like Madeline’s Madeline comes along.
As beautiful as it is wildly chaotic and entirely unpredictable, Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a vivid mosaic of manic characters and hectic themes. Through the coming-of-age story of Madeline, who’s played brilliantly by newcomer Helena Howard, we see the depths of mental illness, the often exploitative nature of performance art, and the places where the two intersect.
We first meet Madeline as she stalks around her home, hissing and purring as she fully embodies a cat. Her mother affectionately encourages her with belly scratches and plenty of cooing. Behind the scene, the soundtrack is a cacophony; the cinematography is too close when you don’t expect it and too far when you want to be closer. It’s a beginning designed to alarm and disarm the viewer from the very get-go; the tone is immediately established as something of a rodeo bull that’s trying to buck you off at any moment as soon as you don’t give it your full and immediate attention. Decker sends a clear message: buckle in because this is just the start.
Piece by piece, the film begins to build into the almost mystical atmosphere that permeates its runtime. Everything is shown through the bizarre filter of Madeline’s eyes, which are skewed by some form of mental illness that is never fully revealed. We wander in and out of her constant fever dream for important story moments and are forced to step back and marvel at the way Madeline lives her life, hardly able to tell the difference between fiction and reality at any given moment.
Helping blur that line is Madeline’s acting teacher, Evangeline, played by Molly Parker. She encourages the erasure of this boundary and uses Madeline’s life, often unfairly, as an influence in her work. She desires to drive a spike between Madeline and her mother, which is a relationship that’s already constantly on the rocks. This splintering dynamic becomes crucial in the climactic event that kicks off an incredibly bizarre ending that’ll leave any audience flabbergasted and fascinated as Decker rewrites the rules of visual storytelling.
Here’s the thing about her cinematic style: Madeline’s Madeline is abstract and complicated, but it never gets completely baffling. It’s relatively easy to follow, for those who’re accustomed to more abstract films, and it’s consistently astounding and challenging in all the best possible ways.