“And soon, mechanically, oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of a sad future, I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a piece of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake-crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening in me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.” –Excerpt from Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, translated by Lydia Davis
“You are not the cat, you’re inside the cat. The emotions you are having are not your own. They are someone else’s.” These are the first few lines spoken at us by a blurry, distorted KK (Okwui Okpokwasili) as she stares into the lens, putting us into a trance. Her soft-spoken words clash with Proust’s quote about madeleines. When we receive a sensation that is triggered from an outside source (like a madeline, or a cat) is that sensation housed inside us or are we made up of it? What if we apply those questions to acting? Does acting entail transforming into someone else from the outside in, or finding the character from inside and growing outwards?
These are the kinds of questions that have long preoccupied the art of acting and they are front and centre in Josephine Decker’s brilliant third feature Madeline’s Madeline.
Helena Howard plays Madeline, a talented 16-year old coping with an unspecified mental illness. She’s working on a devised play with a group of actors, spearheaded by the director Evangeline (Molly Parker). As Madeline becomes more open about her life outside of the play and about her fractured relationship with her mother (Miranda July), Evangeline starts incorporating more of Madeline’s life into the devised play. As Madeline’s story starts slipping away from her and into the hands of her director, her mental state spirals downwards.
But Decker stays away from the shock techniques of many “artist on the edge” films. Madeline does not die onstage. Her director is not a tyrant. And her climactic solo performance, though powerful, is more uncomfortable than it is a breakthrough (but maybe those aren’t mutually exclusive). Decker transforms the genre from within, rewriting the rules.
The film tackles many issues that arise when creating a devised show. When you’re not working from a text and the show evolves as you make it, there’s so much less to hang on to. At the beginning of the film, the play is about prison. Evangeline brings in an ex-con to talk about his experience. At first, Evangeline displays the right amount of sensitivity, but when she branches out from his experience and asks her actors to talk about a time in their life that they felt pain, things get uncomfortable very quickly.
Later in the film, Madeline is at a BBQ with Evangeline’s husband George (a black man) and their friends. One friend inquires about the play and asks in a concerned tone, “So it’s a play about prison?” Evangeline squirms and changes course: “No, no. It’s, uh, a play about mental illness.” Decker delves deep into the optics of appropriation and race. But steers clear from the depicting the (long, but necessary) conversations about race and representation that occur over the course of a collective creation.
Decker is more interested in interrogating the impact of artistic exploitation; of what it feels like to have your experiences represented against your will. In one scene Madeline confides in Evangeline about a dream in which she burns her mother with an iron. A couple of scenes, Evangeline asks her to re-tell her the dream, pen and paper in hand. Her opportunistic infatuation with Madeline is driven by a search for authenticity, the kind which her whiteness disallows her from doing. Josephine Decker has said in interviews that film is about its own making. You get the sense that she is unpacking her own anxieties as a filmmaker, and yet the film doesn’t indulge in white guilt or self-referential commentary.
There are a handful of tense and beautifully-executed scenes, but the one that sticks out is involves a promo photoshoot. Madeline shows up with her mother Regina after sitting (and seething) through the birds and bees talk to a photoshoot to promote the play. Evangeline, noticing that Madeline is tense and distracted around her mother, asks her to wait outside. But as she witnesses the drama of mother and daughter, the play’s direction changes course. “This is the play,” she announces, “It’s about a mother and daughter.” Wanting to precipitate something in Madeline, she asks to borrow Madeline’s cardigan, hoping that it will unleash something in Madeline. When that doesn’t work, she brings Regina back in, and positions her off camera, in front of her. These three decisions exemplify three different approaches to making art. Leave the trigger at the door, bring a piece of it to inspire you or just use all of it.
Ashley Connor’s cinematography is some of those most ecstatic camerawork I have ever had the pleasure to experience. The onscreen textures morph and vibrate to create a kinetic whirlwind of subjective experience. Her mostly handheld camerawork is both focused and disorienting. Character and actor blend and distort, as do the focal planes. Indeed, the friction between mother and daughter, actor and director is felt viscerally, not intellectually.
Amidst all the chaos of devising, there lies an urgency to create. It grapples with the ethics of storytelling, while never hitting the brakes. It plows ahead while blurring the edges (literally) of performance and identity. With an incredible finale evoking David Lynch and immersive theatre, the film leaves its questions unanswered but the audience entranced. Decker cements herself as a true original.
/Film rating: 10 out of 10