Josephine Decker’s (“Flames”) latest cinematic offering, “Madeline’s Madeline,” hails from one of the most difficult-to-achieve sub-genres of cinema: art about art. The film is a deep-dive into the legitimacy of high-art and creative authorship. Did I really write this review? I mean, of course I wrote this review, but is it truly mine? On one hand, my analysis and interpretation is a creative entity unto itself, one that seems like it would belong to me. On the other, though, nothing I can say here is exactly new, but a creative process balanced atop another creative process, that of Decker. They’re my words, sure, but they’re about her film, her ideas, her life. The film follows Madeline (Helena Howard), an angst-filled teenager who joins a performance art theatre troupe led by the magnetic and talented Evangeline (Molly Parker, “1922”). Drawn in by Evangeline’s artistic vision, Madeline quickly earns the lead in the troupe’s upcoming production, but as the show starts to eerily mirror Madeline’s life, it becomes unclear where the performance ends, and just whose story Evangeline is telling.
It’s no secret that the upper echelons of high art love to pat themselves on the back and celebrate their own artistry. From the aptly named Evangeline to the masks and dances of the performers, Decker’s depiction of high art is imbued with an intense, borderline-violent level of religious zeal. There’s something decidedly cult-like about the troupe, amplified by Madeline’s desperate desire to find a community to which she belongs. Decker toys with this malicious fanaticism, using her lurid and intimate brand of cinematography to turn the mundane and ordinary into overwhelming sensory experiences. She offers a cinematic experience that audiences will be hard pressed to find anywhere else, taking the viewers into Madeline’s mind as she struggles with loneliness, mental illness and artistic discovery. I won’t mince words: “Madeline’s Madeline” is a weird, weird movie. Unlike similarly bizarre offerings such as Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” — where there’s ample creativity but little intent or precision — Decker wields her creative vision with poise and purpose, delivering a well-tested rumination on the creative process.
The film’s subject matter is decidedly self-referential, making it difficult to explain to those who haven’t seen it. Much of the wit in Decker’s writing rests on the layers of artistic performance present within the film, from plays-within-plays to acting about acting. She positions these moments deftly, using them to make sharp observations about the nature of artistic performance. For example, the film is scathingly critical of the holier-than-thou pretension of the arthouse scene. When, the film asks, does art become less about documenting the human condition and more about masturbatory self-celebration? If an artist were to cover themself in oil and lie screaming on a canvas, are they really making an artistic statement? Decker weaves these questions into the narrative as Madeline and Evangeline take its twists and turns.
Decker is able to pull these feats off with the assistance of Helena Howard. In her film debut, the young actress proves herself capable beyond her years, flaunting a range that should be the envy of many veteran performers. Her relationships with the mentors in her life take a variety of permutations from loving and supportive to borderline oedipal to outright adversarial. Nevertheless, Howard’s energy is incendiary as she makes each of these dynamics uniquely her own. If this weren’t enough of a challenge, she’s also asked to pantomime a number of animals, including a cat, a sea turtle and a pig.
Wonderfully weird but surprisingly grounded and coherent, “Madeline’s Madeline” never lets its own surrealism stop it from sending a coherent message or telling a well-crafted story, a problem that seems to have plagued similarly experimental releases. Decker manages to hone her artistic vision to a point, creating a film that is a creatively unprecedented but all the while neatly assembled affair. In the end, “Madeline’s Madeline” serves as proof of its own hypothesis: The artist must control their art, lest it control the artist.