I saw plenty of films at this year’s Revelation Perth International Film Festival and as per usual there were many great films, but this year there was one, in particular, that shook me to my core in a way very few films ever have. That film was Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, one of the most jaw-dropping and innovative narrative films in recent years.
The film is mostly told from the point-of-view of Madeline (Helena Howard in the breakout performance of 2018), a brilliant teenage actress in a theatre troupe. We learn very early on in the film that Madeline suffers from a debilitating mental illness, which can often lead her to be incredibly volatile. Her state, however, seems to enhance her creativity, letting her as a performer be unusually open. This demands the respect of her peers, especially by the theatre troupe’s director, Evangeline (Molly Parker). Evangeline begins to take Madeline under her wing to help create her next production, but starts to take their collaboration too far.
On the flipside, Madeline’s relationship with her mother Regina (filmmaker Miranda July), like many things in her life, is fuzzy. While at times their love for one another truly shows, we see images of Madeline physical hurting her mother, but it’s later revealed that (apparently) one of these images was just a dream Madeline had. With this and other instances of Madeline’s imagination coming into play, such us seeing her imagine she’s a turtle via a POV shot of a turtle crawling on a beachside, we begin to question which parts of the film is reality, Madeline’s imagination or a dream.
The film is a suitably disorientating experience and one of the best depictions of mental illness I’ve ever seen on screen. In addition to the fractured, stream-of-consciousness narrative, the film features a camera which often woozily floats around character’s faces in extreme close-up, going in and out of focus, resulting in imagery that sometimes veers into something nearly abstract, as if the camera is part of Madeline’s wild spirit.
However, the centre of the film is, of course, acting and Helena Howard as the titular character is one of the best debut and dynamic performances you will ever see on screen. Like her character, her performance is basically indescribable, I have truly never seen a performance quite like this. Playing a performer is a hard enough acting feat, but playing an untamed force of nature, who may/may not always be acting is ethereal. Molly Parker is also fantastic, playing a warm yet quietly despicable character and Miranda July’s performance as Madeline’s struggling mother is thoroughly effective.
There are a multitude of difficult themes Madeline’s Madeline explores including, but not limited to, the director/performer relationship, the ethics of storytelling and the weird relationship between mental illness and creativity. A lot of these themes seem to be reflexive of Decker and Howard themselves, but to truly go into this would require full papers on the film itself as well as a multitude of viewings.
Experimental and challenging, yet emotionally rewarding like very few films are, the film stands as a ground-breaking achievement in modern narrative cinema. While it might not be everybody’s cup of tea, you are able to open yourself up to Madeline’s Madeline obtuseness, you will be rewarded with an utterly breathtaking 93-minute masterpiece.