Who is Madeline’s Madeline?


The Tension of Madeline
Madeline’s Madeline is an experimental film by Josephine Decker. The film explores a young girl, Madeline’s (Helena Howard), tumultuous relationship with a physical theatre troupe and with the two mother figures in her life: Regina (Miranda July), her birth mother, and Evangeline (Molly Parker), her troupe leader.
Madeline’s Madeline is an exercise in tension. It explores the interplays of tension and release in personal reality, which exude beyond the film – becoming, very much, a movie on anxieties.
Watching it, I felt my own fingers tighten. My eyes quivered with awkwardness, as Madeline attempted to hold a conversation with other characters on the screen. A transition sound chosen towards the end of the film was a literal exhalation of breath. Sigh.

It might be easy to pin the film’s unpredictability upon the titular female lead, Madeline. But is that tension manufactured in the psyche of the character? Madeline expresses herself to others through her acting in a New York troupe; however, the constant shifts in cinematic perspective leave us unable to even grip onto that conclusion confidently. The fact is, although we suspect that we are seeing the film’s world only through Madeline’s eyes and that she is an unreliable narrator, given her volatile mental health, this is perhaps too simple analysis. The narrative of the film is in itself unreliable, formed not as a line, but as a spiral, dipping into fever dreams backed by an almost religious soundtrack of drumming and banal car rides. And then suddenly everything screeches to a halt, with a flash of emotional or physical violence.
The Exploitation of Madeline
Helena Howard, the lead actress, vibrates with charisma, because although she underacts during scenes of quotidian reality, her eyes always burn with meaning. It’s impossible not to be captivated. The other characters around her are similarly enraptured; the camera appears to caress Madeline’s skin and hair, in a mimicry of their own gazes. There’s a sensuality in the way that camera lingers on Madeline, in a way that’s not quite hungry, but not so innocent either. The gaze wants to consume her.

Perhaps Madeline’s birth mother Regina wants to reabsorb her out-of-control daughter. The very first scene reimagines Madeline as a newborn. We see how love and care is twisted in the movie to more closely resemble a parasitic assimilation. Her mother’s attention towards Madeline initially appears to be almost in spite of Madeline’s defensive and cruel attitude towards her; however, the audience begins to feel a creeping sensation of maternal actions becoming an assault of a different kind. We suspect Madeline’s mother is not so innocent. As we brush past this feeling of unease, we are still unable to ever resolve it. The film leaves us with many lingering questions on their relationship. There are hints, allusions, and intuitions that are never completely explained.

Madeline also wants to please the theatre troupe leader, Evangeline, and views her as a prosthetic mother. But Evangeline wants to eat Madeline up and spit her out in the name of art. Madeline’s internal damage is ripe for exploitation. These two mothers lurk and weigh on the young girl’s sanity. It certainly doesn’t help that Madeline’s immersion in the acting troupe involves copious amounts of physical touching and extreme intimacy. Madeline lays her soul and body bare to the troupe in ways that none of the other characters do.

The Ego of Madeline
What is most apparent in this film is ego. Every character’s veneer suffers cracks from the sheer weight of their individual egos. Madeline’s ego is one with fiery agony, Regina’s quivers with maternal indignity, and Evangeline’s is narcissistic. The egos are subject to strain, fluctuation, and manipulation. There isn’t enough room on the stage for all three of them, and so they push one another until someone breaks. It’s not obvious who prevails, or if they all lose in the end: Madeline’s mother disappears from the scene, there one minute and gone the next, after being publicly humiliated. Evangeline, despite her pregnant state, is dumped, literally, into a performance over which she has no control. Madeline’s reality appears to be transformed into a stage as the lines blur completely between performance and existence.

The Exterior/Interior of Madeline
The film’s moral, if there is one, is difficult to discern. For one, assuming we accept that Madeline is unstable and violent, her behavior is hard to accept. On the other hand, she is so brilliantly creative that it’s tough to consider dulling that flame. While Evangeline appears to want to adapt to Madeline’s peculiarities, we eventually find that she seeks to channel Madeline’s instability for her own selfish gain. We only initially root for Evangeline for nurturing Madeline’s talent, and are wary of Regina for her strange outbursts and attempts to corral her daughter. Regina does her job as a mother, but there’s something unsettling about it. Nobody is perfect, nobody is a saint.

The Madeline we’ve come to know so intimately would not exist without her complications – but neither would any human being. Health and humanity are constantly subverted in this film by exploring the external and interior worlds of Madeline’s experiences. Several of Madeline’s internal visions, while she practises her troupe exercises, involve animals. She transforms into a cat or a sea turtle. Madeline is not human to her own mind, but we also see these embodiments manifesting externally as she snorts and wears a pig mask in the streets, or purrs while a stranger scratches her hair. Her mental health is constantly in question. In spite of Madeline needing medication, she sometimes appears to be the actual sane one, while her mother is crumbling. But this is merely a relative association. Perhaps the point is that ultimately, we still root for Madeline and hope that somehow she’ll become a master of her own creativity. There’s a sense of relief, regardless of Madeline’s state of mind, that occurs near the ending, when Madeline’s world ceases to be fractured and instead coheres as one theatrical structure.


Written by Lillian Snortland

Header image courtesy of The Talk

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