Madeline’s Madeline will break your mind

Madeline’s Madeline will break your mind


September 28, 2018

Noah: Jonah, what did we just watch?

Jonah: Well, my friend, we just caught the new indie darling “Madeline’s Madeline” from director Josephine Decker. It’s not quite easy to recap the film—I guess I would call it an avant garde coming-of-age story, think “Lady Bird” meets “Mulholland Drive.” Helena Howard (in her first role) stars as Madeline, the teenage star of a prestigious New York dance company. But things aren’t great for Madeline: She’s struggling with her relationship with her mother (played with understated grace by author Miranda July) and her own mental illness.

“Madeline’s Madeline” is a very weird movie but also a very good movie. Aside from the strength of the performances, the film is incredibly well-constructed. As the movie unwinds, Decker manages to showcase copy after copy, a recursive spiral of subjectivity with Madeline at the center. It’s heady, postmodern stuff, with Decker giving the film an equally distinctive visual language to match. It’s experimental—an experiment that worked. How about you, Noah? What did you think of the movie and the cinematography?

Noah: I asked you that because I really hadn’t seen anything like it. The movie takes some getting used to—it doesn’t hold your hand, but as it moves on and establishes its language, it becomes apparent that the jagged cuts, claustrophobic close-ups and elliptical editings are incredibly significant to the story being told. We’re seeing the world through Madeline’s eyes, through the perspective of a talented, young person struggling with mental illness, and in that way, the abrasiveness just works—because Madeline works. It was like the cinematography of an Antonioni movie with the editing of something from the French New Wave, with themes and ideas that feel new and relevant.

There’s so much theater in this movie: it questions the nature of performance art, whose stories belong to who, the thin line between exploitation and collaboration, and all in only 94 minutes!

What did you think of Helena Howard, and why did you say right after we saw the movie that you think everyone at Brandeis should see it?

Jonah: I’m really glad you brought up the runtime: I think “Madeline’s Madeline” has the perfect length, packing a ton into a relatively brief period. You’re right about the movie taking a bit to get used to: I’m not sure how much more time I could have spent in “Madeline close-up,” though that’s more a testament to the strength of Decker’s visual language than anything else. Helena Howard does a lot to ground the more experimental aspects of the film—she’s phenomenal, and it’s clear that Decker knows how to play to her strengths.

This is a movie I’d recommend to the Brandeis crowd for a few reasons. The movie is fixated on Madeline and her mental illness, as Madeline is navigating the realities of being a person of color today. No spoilers, but as the film progresses, Decker sort of pivots away from Madeline’s story and towards the question of who can tell Madeline’s story. I hope it’s not too much of a generalization to say that Brandeisians are engaged with conversations around mental illness, race and art. Decker and her film seem to anticipate and address potentially problematic issues. What do you think, Noah? How good of a job does “Madeline’s Madeline” do handling it’s sensitive ideas? And who would you recommend this for?

Noah: I think it handled them in a unique, sensitive way. It was great getting to hear director Josephine Decker expound on that; it’s obvious she spent a lot of time working out how to talk about these ideas in the right way. Add to that the fact that she spent a year with a diverse group of actors workshopping the script, I don’t think it would be a stretch at all to say that people invested in how we as a culture talk about mental health, art and exploitation should watch this movie. So yeah, pretty much all Brandeisians.

I think film in general has become really shy of taking risks—something “Madeline” doesn’t shy away from. It’s an ambitious, personal film that people who decry the lack of “art” in the current cinema need to go see.

If you’re a theater major, you should watch this film because it takes your craft seriously in a way I hadn’t seen before. Now I almost feel bad making fun of you.

“Madeline’s Madeline” is screening at the Brattle Theatre through Monday, Sept 24.  

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