Such is the power of Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline that it lingers in the memory long after the end credits roll. The creativity, the beauty, the humour, the passion and the chaos all contribute to announcing Decker as one of the most important and unique voices in modern US cinema.
It could be said that she is fortunate to work with such an inspiring muse. The newcomer Helena Howard is a magnetic and dominant presence in a film where her character draws the attention of everyone she meets as the young star of theatre director Evangeline’s (Molly Parker) latest project. As Madeline (Howard) begins to take the performance all too seriously, Evangeline senses the opportunity to use the frantic and unpredictable energy of her debutant much as Decker uses Howard’s verve as the fulcrum of her work.
From its strangely sensual and playful opening to hypnotic depictions of the play’s rehearsals, there is often a mischievous and lighthearted tone set by Decker but there are frequent hints at a darker side as it begins to become clear that Madeline is altogether more vulnerable than her striding confidence would have you believe. While Evangeline looks to take advantage of this, Madeline’s mother Regina (Miranda July) is anxious. Worried her daughter may be entering a world for which she is ill prepared, July plays Regina with a quiet unease, brilliantly exploding with pent up emotion. She frets and fusses and her discomfort gently moves from comic side-note to disturbingly crucial.
Decker bathes her young lead in gorgeous warm light during her moments of elation, but cold and pale are the moments of disappointment and sadness. The tension and claustrophobia are carefully constructed with a camera that forever hovers in the immediate; prying and probing for weaknesses.
Madeline’s Madeline is a painfully disturbing portrayal of the conflict between the peace and anarchy of the fragile mind. Madeline’s delicate balance is so easily tipped. Her mask so easily slips, revealing the tumult beneath. The high moments are of sheer elation, but the lows are agonising, desperately leaving the viewer wishing the fiction of her life was real. Instead, Decker shows her mania in all its grotesque truth, in a portrait of mental illness that is honest, murky and unflinching.
Madeline’s Madeline is out on general release and is available to stream on the 10th May courtesy of Mubi