Article by: Josh Bradley
Inspired by strolls through the Huntington Art Collection in Pasadena, I wrote a piece several years ago about how certain movies from certain filmmakers need to be assessed differently than mainstream films because they share more in common with the stuff you see in an art museum and thus engage your brain differently. “Art film” is often a euphemism for something pretentious, low-budget, experimental, or meandering (or all the above), but I think it’s an apt and deserving term (and, ya know…a compliment) for some movies.
I saw Madeline’s Madeline at the Nuart in LA, a renowned theater (by local movie nerds anyway) with plenty of “art film cred” due to its anachronistic single screen, midnight screenings of cult hits (including one of the country’s longest-running weekly Rocky Horror Picture Show shadowcasts), and week-long engagements of movies that might only be playing on one or two screens total in the entire country and may not ever be screened on more than 20. It’s the kind of tiny theater that’s only survived into the era of multiplexes because it caters to the documentaries, foreign films, and, yes, art films beloved by a certain stripe of moviegoer who loyally patronize it. Case in point: most of the previews I saw were for documentaries. One of them — Kusama Infinity, about artist Yayoi Kusama — mentioned Georgia O’Keefe.
I give that long intro for two reasons: (1) to paint a picture of what kind of aesthetic we’re dealing with here, and (2) because Madeline’s Madeline is a movie about acting in the same sense that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings are about flowers. You get so close, closer than you’ve ever been before, so close that it looks like something else entirely, and you gain a new perspective on something you’ve seen before.
The movie is, in the most reductive sense, about a high school theater actress named Madeline (Helena Howard, in a stunning film debut), the youngest member of an experimental theater troupe in New York. Madeline is a very talented actress and praised for it by her avant-garde director, Evangeline (Molly Parker) but also has a complicated relationship with her mother, Regina (Miranda July) — think: an impressionist version of Lady Bird. There are hints of possible mental instabilities in Madeline — fascinatingly never confirmed to be real or erroneously perceived by her concerned mother — and allusions to past psychiatric commitments, along with more overt allusions to an eating disorder. Part of me thinks the impressionistic editing of the movie is supposed to invoke a POV of Madeline experiencing delirium from hunger and low blood sugar (writer/director Josephine Decker shares an editor credit with Harrison Atkins, and Elizabeth Rao is credited separately as a co-editor, a credit I don’t think I’ve ever seen used).
The troupe does a lot of free-form acting exercises and improvs (including a lot of animal work) to help Evangeline build a story for a play/abstract piece of performance art. Evangeline hones in on Madeline’s strained relationship with her mother for inspiration, which only further strains said relationship. With Evangeline using Madeline’s real-life relationship to create a piece of performance art, there’s a blurring of the line between art and life and which is a reflection of which, complete with commentary on the exploitation of one for the sake of the other. And given that the movie itself is a work of art by an avant-garde director built around a young actress about an avant-garde director building a work of art around a young actress, it boggles the mind to wonder how far down this art-reflecting-life-reflecting-art-reflecting-life wormhole actually goes.
The first shot of the movie is a POV shot looking up at a nurse as deep purring can be heard, and the nurse tells the camera that what you experiencing is a metaphor and that “The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s. You are not the cat, you are inside the cat.” Being the first shot of the movie before you have your bearings, you aren’t sure if the POV being spoken to is that of a human or a cat…until the nurse tells you, of course. The next shot is Madeline laying on a table purring, pretending to be a cat (animal work). From the get-go, the movie establishes the empathy inherent to the acting process, highlighting the surrogacy of actors inhabiting their characters (“you are inside the cat”). Perhaps Evangeline’s intention in crafting a play based around Madeline’s conflict with her mother is to harness this empathy, but perhaps that’s giving Evangeline too much credit (and even if it is her intention, it backfires). Madeline expresses herself through avant-garde acting that her mother can’t understand, and her mother can’t express herself at all.
Madeline’s Madeline is gorgeously crafted (shoutout to cinematographer Ashley Connor) and features one of the finest debut performances I’ve ever seen (Moonlight director Barry Jenkins called it one of the best performances he’s ever seen, period, and…he made Moonlight). And while the style may not be your cup of tea, it’s definitely one of those “art films” for which the title is literal and deserved. It’s immersive, thought-provoking, moving, and impressive. Take a chance on it.