Josephine Decker had to have known what she was doing when she named the protagonist of her latest film Madeline, a homophone of the small French sponge cake central to Marcel Proust’s sprawling modernist novel In Search of Lost Time. Wherein, the hero’s tasting of a madeleine cake dipped in tea opens a floodgate of involuntary childhood memories. The scene, which happens early in the first of the book’s seven volumes, sets the stage for Proust’s ground-breaking philosophical examinations of the fluidity of memory, maturity, and perception. Since the first volume’s publication in 1913, the madeleine has become a short-hand or symbol for heady ontological ruminations and an in-joke for artists in the know—Decker might as well have named her protagonist after Molly Bloom or Clarissa Dalloway. But it is the madeleine which she references, and in so doing attempts to transform Madeline into a similar totem for an unraveling of reality and consciousness into its basest fragments so they might be reconstructed into something new and daring. Madeline’s Madeline certainly doesn’t want for such lofty artistic ambition. Eschewing traditional cinematic language and logic, the film is a madeleine rush of disjointed images, disorienting cuts, and scene fragments designed to mimic the primal chaos of the creative process itself. At once cluttered Künstlerroman and psychological potboiler, Madeline’s Madeline is one of the most formally original—and frustrating—American films in years.
It’s difficult to discuss the plot of Madeline’s Madeline because Decker doesn’t present it in any way approximating how we’ve been taught to experience them. It takes about fifteen minutes before we realize that the film centers on a biracial, possibly mentally ill, 16-year old named Madeline (Helena Howard) preparing for an experimental theater piece with an avant grade New York troupe. It begins with an unnerving POV shot of a nurse assuring the audience “what you are experiencing is just a metaphor” as a cat growls offscreen. Cut to a black teenager flopping around an apartment purring like a cat, nudging her nervous mother until she plays along and scratches her tummy. Cut to a dream sequence of the teenager slamming a hot iron on the mother’s hand as what sounds like an African slave song blares in the background. Cut to the teenager watching a group of actors warm up in a theater. Cut to yet another POV shot, this time of a sea turtle that is also the teenager hatching from its egg and crawling towards the sea. At no point does the film go out of its way to tell us that this teenager is Madeline, that the story is set in New York City, or that we’re largely watching fragments of acting exercises and her dreams. The film forces you to acclimate yourself to it like someone learning a new language in a foreign land—it’s a classroom of instant, total immersion.
From there the film dissects the three central relationships in Madeline’s life, those with her mother Regina (Miranda July), her pregnant acting teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker), and herself as a burgeoning sexual being and artist. Her relationship with Regina is strained—alternating between bouts of petulant anger, affectionate warmth, and neurotic overprotectiveness, Madeline never seems able to predict which version of her mother she’s going to encounter when she gets in the car after rehearsal or sits down at the dinner table. This traumatic tension is perhaps what largely pushes Madeline into seeing the calm and passionate Evangeline as a surrogate mother figure, one in which she confides her literal hopes and dreams. Evangeline is happy to oblige, partly because she sees her as a reflection of the child in her womb, partly because she sees her as a fountainhead of emotional wealth and lived experience from which she can draw further inspiration for her ill-advised performance piece supposedly attacking the evils of the prison industrial complex by having a group of interpretive dancers cavort around a stage wearing pig masks.
Madeline’s relationship with herself is tougher to crack, as it’s inseparable from the ones with Regina and Evangeline. Consider her sexual awakening: society may be forcing her to sexually mature faster than might be healthy—nowhere is this more apparent than during a troupe photoshoot where the photographer lasciviously catcalls her “a hot black chick”—but it’s impossible to see Madeline’s impulsive sexual behavior such as a queasy moment where she offers her virginity to Evangeline’s husband without remembering the scene where Regina walks in on her and some male friends watching porn and freaks out, demanding the boys to “whip it out” and “go for it” if they’re going to be so dirty. Likewise, her artistic development only reaches a boiling point once she realizes the full extent of Evangeline’s predatory behavior and strikes back in the climax where she and the rest of the troupe rebels with an improvised performance piece which may or may not only be happening in Madeline’s mind. Indeed, the film’s use of fluid doublings—mother/daughter, adolescent/adult, artist/audience—suggest that Madeline’s self may never be freed from the control and influence of others who want to use her.
Madeline’s Madeline is one of the few cinematic works to emerge from the American indie scene recently that can be properly referred to as a “text”: I’ve seen the film three times now and each time I came away meditating on a different idea or theme that hadn’t occurred to me before. Yet each time I also felt curiously more and more underwhelmed; each new interpretation revealed just how little cohesion the whole contained. The first viewing left me reflecting on the film’s indecisiveness on the effectiveness of artistic expression to heal tormented individuals, as Madeline’s most traumatic breakdowns happen either during or immediately after a performance or rehearsal. Decker poses the question of whether Evangeline’s troupe is helping or hurting Madeline and then stubbornly refuses to answer it. The second time I found myself obsessed with Decker’s depiction of a white artistic elite that sustains itself on the borrowed trauma of POC, suggesting some innate guilt on Decker’s part as a white director who prominently works with non-white performers. Once more, it chastises Evangeline as a culture vulture and exacts no penalty for her actions other than a front-row seat to confusing show at the end. And the third time I was disturbed by an underlying suggestion that in a misogynist world women can only succeed by creatively cannibalizing or socially ostracizing each other. By the end of the film, none of the three women are reconciled. (In an oversight that seemed remarkably cruel on Decker’s part, Regina isn’t even given a conclusion, she literally just disappears from the film after a humiliating public confrontation with Madeline.)
And yet it’s impossible to dismiss Madeline’s Madeline completely. It’s too bold, too brave, too defiantly itself to be written off as a complete misfire. There are moments of near transcendent power, particularly the scenes where Howard is given room to act and not just react to those around her. Additionally, Decker’s formal techniques here officially establish her as perhaps the only other prominent American director than Terrence Malick and David Lynch to actively explore new ways with which the cinematic medium can be used to tell stories and express ideas previously constrained to other artistic mediums like literature. While writing this review I’ve spoken with numerous friends and critics about the film, and the only consensus we seem able to reach is that it’s nothing if not an exciting new direction for American indies. But it still can’t escape the shadows of its own shortcomings.