Josephine Decker‘s third film, Madeline’s Madeline, is a truly perplexing enigma of modern avant-garde cinema. Teetering the line between the uncomfortable intensity of its performances and the intoxicating cinematic charm of its artistic presentation, the film is a whirlwind of youthful energy and unsettling creativity. Yet, unlike many other worthwhile art films, Madeline’s Madeline is surprisingly easy to engage with, not setting out to stump its audience before they’ve even settled into their seats. Indeed, the film is magically gripping, even with its limited budget and scale of production. At just 93 minutes, Madeline’s Madeline propels forward with the assured direction of traveling everywhere yet nowhere.
Twenty-year-old newcomer Helena Howard inhabits the mind and body of the titular Madeline, a rebellious teenager with an unspecified psychological disorder and frequent emotional breakdowns that vaguely resemble performance art. It’s no surprise then that Madeline is the star student of a pretentious acting troupe, run by the obsessive yet woefully insecure Evangeline (Molly Parker), clearly using her hobby as a means to escape the anxious grasp of her overbearing mother Regina (played by the teary-eyed Miranda July). It’s unclear as to what goal Evangeline is rehearsing her class towards- on one occasion, she has the class mimicking animal behavior; on another, she brings in an ex-con to talk about his feelings while incarcerated. Throughout these early rehearsal scenes, there’s an overwhelming sense that Evangeline herself knows neither the subject nor the purpose of her art, yet it becomes increasingly clear as the film proceeds that Madeline is at the very center of it.
And what a character Madeline is. Helena Howard, whom director Josephine Decker discovered while judging a high school drama competition (and immediately burst into tears from a stirring monologue the young actress performed), delivers not only one of the year’s best performances, but a performance that is truly one of a kind. Oscillating her facial expressions between a typical blank-faced teenaged stare and upsetting contortions of incomprehensible emotion, Howard brings a breathtaking inscrutability to her role. Her face- which we watch intently for much of the film’s brief runtime- is at once intensely emotive and utterly perplexing. It’s abundantly clear that Madeline is going through a lot of emotions; it’s not clear what those emotions are, nor is it clear whether they’re caused purely by normal teenage hormones or by something more sinister. The fact that this is Howard’s debut screen performance is ridiculously impressive, and she is most certainly an actress to watch out for in the coming years.
As baffling and visually arresting as Helena Howard’s performance is the film’s magnificently expressionistic cinematography, executed by Ashley Connor (who also worked on this year’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post). In fact, the two go hand in hand; without either, the film wouldn’t be half as effective. Connor’s handheld camerawork is dizzying, fluidly panning and drifting in and out of focus, reminiscent of von Trier’s conspicuously messy handheld work but with a haphazard deliberation. The focal plane established by the cinematography is so uncompromisingly shallow that every image within the frame threatens to disappear into a blur lest it stray too far from the camera’s intent fixation. It’s as if we’re staring into the narrow eye of the hurricane that is Madeline’s emotional plane of existence, claustrophobically trapped inside her headspace (perhaps even literally).
Under the surface of Decker’s film is a highly unique and brilliantly creative sound design, a frightening aural landscape that at times begins to take on a life of its own. Composed primarily of primordial grunts, whispers, and other peculiar vocal instrumentation, the film’s soundtrack is often independent and even indifferent to the events transpiring on camera. It’s a subliminally unsettling cacophony, brimming with emotional chaos and perhaps even menace.
What’s most perplexing about Madeline’s Madeline, however, is what it’s trying to say. Reading about Josephine Decker’s own creative uncertainty and her hesitation to appropriate the stories of other people, it’s easy to attach a certain message of ethical artistic responsibility to the film. Should an artist be allowed to tell the story of another person? Decker seems to think not, or at least she’s deeply uncomfortable with the notion. Evangeline comes to represent Decker’s anxiety over this matter, dangerously toeing the line between expression and exploitation in her relationship with Madeline.
Yet even this seemingly sound theme doesn’t come close to hitting all the intricacies and undercurrents within the film. Perhaps, like Evangeline, Josephine Decker isn’t totally aware of her whole thematic intent herself. Nevertheless, what she has crafted is a thoroughly riveting piece of avant-garde cinema, expanding the methods in which a film can burrow its way into a character’s headspace and convey their idiosyncrasies through an audiovisual medium. Madeline’s Madeline is assuredly one of the most experimental and pioneering works of cinema this year, and that fact alone deserves it an attentive viewing from every cinephile.