Disassociation is the first image in Madeline’s Madeline. Before the image comes into view we hear a woman say “You are not the cat.” After we hear her, the image bubbles into a hazy glimmer where warm amber tones peak through the darkness, like opening your eyes after a deep sleep. We are seeing and hearing from Madeline’s (Helana Howard) point of view. Madeline is introduced deep in a method-acting experience, purring vigorously and folding her arms up into herself to become a feline. She appreciates the tickle rubs on her belly from her mother Regina (Miranda July), but upon hearing something off in the distance Madeline freezes, before diving into the crafts her mother left in a bowl on the table. Maybe she is the cat?
Madeline is an actor, she’s biracial, and she struggles with mental illness. She’s a young woman whose specific identities are largely at war within herself so acting becomes a sanctuary: a place to let everything go and lose herself completely. That is, until Evangeline (Molly Parker), her theatre director, begins to exploit her, much in the same way her mother gaslights her.
Her theatre director, Evangeline is refashioning a play set completely around the basis of Madeline’s mind. She can see that this young woman is talented beyond her years and she is going to chase glory through Madeline’s story. Evangeline never questions if this is okay, because she cloaks herself in the notion of helping the young actress by putting a spotlight on her unbelievable skills of melding to character and idea through her body language and emotional physicality. Madeline’s along for the ride, because this will be her first performance. What power could she possibly have as a rookie, as a biracial woman against a veteran white woman who acts like she knows what she’s doing.
Madeline is a prodigy (as is Helena Howard). As a young actor she is able to tap into the interiority of whatever character she is playing and bring it into absolute realism until there is no difference between her. It does not matter if she is playing a cat, a tortoise, an abstract idea of pregnancy or depression, or merely playing a version of herself in day to day life: she is able to cloak herself in a multitude of identities. This is an important skill for an actor, and in a situation of art imitating life Helena Howard is able to do just that in this film, which is her debut performance. She is able to split the screen open with a single look or a quiver of her eyes. She is without a doubt, one of the brightest young actors in all of cinema, and hopefully she has many more performances of this quality to come.
The theatrical elements of rehearsal are introduced shortly after the opening scene involving Madeline’s transformation into a cat. The use of montage depicts the image of a cat, blending into hues that feel at home in the giallo subgenre of horror filmmaking, before catching the image in mid-dissolve and finally revealing a theater setting where actors are in dress rehearsal performing a ritualistic chant while wearing the heads of pigs. Director Josephine Decker fractures the image frequently, showing a distorted worldview that through the point of view of Madeline illuminates how she sees the world. It isn’t a pretty sight, but its hers. Madeline’s identities are woven in and out of each other. Her unique experiences with her abusive mother, who exacerbated Madeline’s mental health issues, as well as the difficulties she has finding her identity as a biracial person whose main day to day influences come from white women create what is essentially an unwinnable situation. Madeline is a fireball waiting to explode, and it wouldn’t be her fault if she did.
Throughout the film, her mother, Regina, can be seen prodding Madeline into fights, due to her overprotective nature and her total misunderstanding of the problems her daughter is struggling with. It isn’t rare for Regina to insist that Madeline is very, very, ill and Decker implies, through camerawork and Madeline’s open nerve reactions to her mother, that her sickness’s starting point may have been Regina in the first place. When Madeline is provoked she oftentimes responds with violence, which Regina doesn’t understand, but the important part of Madeline’s reactions is that they are always an echo of her mother’s barbed idea of nurturing. Madeline wouldn’t fight back if there wasn’t reason to do so. Regina gaslights Madeline into believing in her own illness and in doing so has forever altered the way Madeline sees the world. That her theater teacher, Evangeline, similarly puts Madeline in a difficult position during rehearsal paints a pattern of white women using Madeline for their own gain or not taking her actions, thoughts or feelings seriously.
Josephine Decker keeps viewers at bay with her disjointed rhythms and oftentimes unsettles the image and story flow through abstract digressions and textural idiosyncrasies. In her first narrative feature, Butter on the Latch (2013), she annihilated preconceived notions of what a persona-swap film was supposed to look and feel like while making similar contemporary pictures like Queen of Earth (2015) look simplistic by comparison. Decker isn’t an easy filmmaker, and she doesn’t hand her films to viewers on a silver platter, instead asking us to keep our full attention to envelop ourselves in whatever situation her characters come across. In Madeline, the film takes its most promising diversions through virtuoso character acting methodology through the brilliant Helena Howard. Two scenes in particular, one discussing pregnancy & the other a portrait of her mother, evoke the volcanic ashen rage inside of her that could lay waste to everything at any given second, that she constantly keeps under control in front of her mother and other authority figures. Madeline’s body and mind are in chaos and in these brief moments where the experimental techniques of Decker drop away in favor of merely capturing Howard in close-up, acting out her deepest anxieties, and everything that her character has boiling inside of her the film finds its rawest power.
If I sound like I am mixing up the character of Madeline and the real-life person of Helena Howard it is because that is the intended effect. Howard, a first time actor in her own right, is portraying Madeline, who has begun her first ever dalliances with theater and acting. Helena Howard has all the complexities of a 1970s Robert De Niro-esque control of her emotional follow-through when violent climax is necessary. She knows how to boil and simmer letting things taper off when necessary only to turn up the heat. She also has a disquieting effect that can leave the viewer breathless and blindsided by the strength of her facial gestures that is akin at times to Sheryl Lee in the work of David Lynch. Helena Howard is the real deal, and so is Madeline. That this is her first performance is nothing short of revolutionary. In the end, Madeline gets the last laugh. All her personal difficulties culminate in a climax that sees her turn the mind and talent her theatre director was so obsessed with into an interpretive dance of her own making. This is her way of getting her life back and taking control of her own body. She is free of burden, arms stretched out, ready for anything. I hope to god, the film industry gives her plenty, because this should only be the beginning of seeing what Helena Howard is capable of, and we should all be very excited for whatever comes next.