Sundance 2018: Josephine Decker’s Madeline's Madeline

On Film / The Daily — Jan 26, 2018

We turn first to IndieWire’s David Ehrlich: “‘The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s. You are not the cat—you are inside the cat.’ So begins Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, an ecstatically disorienting experience that defines its terms right from the start and then obliterates any trace of traditional film language, achieving a cinematic aphasia that allows Decker to redraw the boundaries between the stories we tell and the people we tell them about. The result is an experimental movie with the emotional tug of a mainstream hit, a fragmented coming-of-age drama that explores the vast space between Hollis Frampton and Greta Gerwig in order to find something truly new and ineffably of its time. This is one of the boldest and most invigorating American films of the twenty-first century.”

“Among its other astonishments,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, the film “does something very simple: it dispels the shibboleth that movies spotlighting strong and original performances differ from ones that innovate at the level of cinematic style. Madeline’s Madeline does both, with equal intensity. Decker’s film, in its dramatic contours, is an utterly clear and classical drama about a Queens family. Miranda July plays Regina, an excessive, boundary-challenged, somewhat out-of-control single mother of a sixteen-year-old girl named Madeline (Helena Howard). Madeline, who is confronting mental illness, is an acting prodigy and the youngest member of a Manhattan-based experimental-theatre company run by a director (Molly Parker) who is emotionally vampirizing Madeline to sustain her own artistry.”

“Is this a great movie?” wonders Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov. “I’m not sure it is, but Josephine Decker’s feature has ambition and the desire for greatness in spades.” Her Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) “both start as clearly agitated but at least ostensibly normal narratives, then turn into remakes of The Shining in the home stretch, burning down an unresolvable narrative morass seemingly out of frustration—in both cases, it seemed like a pyromaniac punt I couldn’t hang with. . . . Madeline’s Madeline rectifies this back-half gearshift by being bonkers from the start: it’s clear from the get-go that we’re trapped in a subjective POV that’s already fallen apart, so there’s no ground to lose.”

“While Molly Parker delivers a fine performance as a strong, creative woman belying a greater vulnerability, young discovery Helena Howard is a fierce and fiery on-screen presence, with a wide open-face and an alluring gap-toothed smile,” writes Anthony Kaufman for Screen. “When Howard’s Madeline reenacts a traumatic exchange between her character and her mother for her theater troupe, it’s a show-stopping moment, full of sadness and rage, which bowls over her fellow actors—as well as the viewer.”

“Shot by cinematographer Ashley Connor,” notes Jordan Raup at the Film Stage, “there’s a warm vivacity to the palette and an unexpected verve, as if one could never guess what the next shot will be, including experimental Punch-Drunk Love-esque color abstraction to a wholly enveloping finale that moves with the startling boldness of mother!’s third act. To further place us Madeline’s head space, the sound design accentuates her heavy breathing through fraught sequences of conflict and performance, which, in this film, are rendered one in the same.”

“None of the techniques Decker and her collaborators use would be as effective as they are without the almost extraordinary contributions by Howard,” writes Gregory Ellwood at the Playlist. “This is the nineteen-year-old’s professional acting debut and her presence isn’t electric just because of her inherent natural on-screen charisma. No, in Howard’s hands Madeline’s mental issues never hint at a false sense of authenticity and, when the story calls for it, she evokes a guttural fury that is simply spectacular to watch.”

For Ben Umstead at ScreenAnarchy, “Madeline’s Madeline is what we mean when we talk about authentic cinema; pure cinema, brimming over with euphoria and empathy and a direct perspective of a human, both inside and out, mental and physical, that feels so complete as to be dizzying.”

“I met Helena Howard while judging a Teen Arts Festival in New Jersey,” Decker tells Women and Hollywood. “She is talented—I mean talented—and so we decided to build something around her artistry. That very process of building went, well, not as expected, and eventually became the content of the film itself.”

Decker also talks to Filmmaker and to Ioncinema, where you’ll also find interviews with Decker, Helena Howard, editor Harrison Atkins, and cinematographer Ashley Connor—who also talks to the Credits.

Update, 1/27: “Decker spins out a mesmerizing, disorienting approach to telling this bare-bones story, relying less on the specifics of what’s happening to Madeline from moment to moment than on emotional impressions, snapping between various ways that our protagonist is seeing either herself or the world around her,” writes Scott Renshaw in the Salt Lake City Weekly. “This is also a kind of free-form yet self-critical study of the way art is created, and the seemingly inevitable ways that creative people can use the painful experiences of others for their own not-always-altruistic purposes.”

Updates, 1/28: “Decker’s film, the best thing I saw at Sundance this year, is built around tension and chaos,” writes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “Its unruly scenes emerge out of disorder, out of chants and shrieks and fractured images, and always threaten to fade back into abstraction. The focus slips; the camera drifts. Whispers and wails intrude. A simple dialogue exchange might suddenly splinter into tight-angled closeups of a face; a shot might disintegrate into a shimmering field of red. But one senses a method in this madness. The narrative might be shattered, but the film’s slipstream of emotion is powerful and inescapable.”

Filmmaker interviews Ashley Connor.

Updates, 1/31: Bilge Ebiri is back for more, noting that “the story behind Madeline’s Madeline makes for a fascinating look at how a powerful movie can be realized in unorthodox, bracing new ways. While at Sundance, it was my good fortune to speak to director Decker, star Howard, and co-star Miranda July about the making of their film.”

At Buzzfeed, Alison Willmore admires “this force of nature whom Howard plays with such incandescence that it's hard to believe she's never acted onscreen before.”

Update, 2/3: Scott Macaulay introduces his interview with Decker for Filmmaker: “What’s most most remarkable about this extraordinary film is Decker’s marrying of a bold, expressionistic filmmaking style—one that eschews the default naturalism of so much American independent film in favor of unexpected lens work (the DP is her regular collaborator, Ashley Connor), overlapping interior and diegetic dialogue, brief darts into fantasy and dream, and an overall feeling of vertiginousness—with a cool, almost analytical take on family (and racial) dynamics as well as systems of exploitation.”

Update, 2/17: “Initially,” writes Paul O’Callaghan for Sight & Sound,Madeline’s Madeline feels of a piece with its predecessors, formally daring and yet a little stifled by its reverence to its cinematic forebears. In opening scenes that oscillate between the wistful whimsy of Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind and the shrieking hysteria of Black Swan, Decker launches the viewer headfirst into the headspace of Madeline . . . As this relentless sensory bombardment threatens to grate, a more conventional coming-of-age narrative begins to take shape, and the film finds its own captivating voice.”

Update, 2/22: “Anyone who has ever taken an acting class and witnessed the psychodramas brewed there will relate to this bubbling kettle of raw, unleashed emotions stirred up in shifting power grabs,” writes Deborah Young for the Hollywood Reporter.

Update, 2/24: “Decker, along with some key collaborators like cinematographer Ashley Connor, has been developing her particularly dissonant, emotionally bracing style through years’ worth of shorts and two previous features,” writes Ian Mantgani for Little White Lies. “It’s so uncompromisingly distinct that many viewers may find it grating—especially when the pig masks come out—but it’s also a commanding and unmistakable personal vision. Madeline’s Madeline is Decker’s best yet, more epic, more cohesive, more acidly witty and with the most psychologically sympathetic and satisfying story.”

Update, 2/27: “Decker has once again proved that she’s one of the most fascinating directors working in America,” writes Patrick Gamble at CineVue. “Combining the disturbing sensory delirium of her debut Butter on the Latch with the lyrical and wistful sensuality of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Madeline’s Madeline feels like a huge leap forward. However, it’s Howard who shines brightest.”

Update, 3/1: “As the Berlinale drew to a close this weekend,” writes Susannah Edelbaum for Broadly, “I sat down with Decker to talk about convincing July to take on her role, getting work made that’s focused on female characters and mental illness, and directing complicated films in an industry shaken up by #MeToo and Time’s Up.”

Updates, 3/2: For Reverse Shot, Clara Miranda Scherffig talks with Decker “about the casting and editing process, the influence of performance art, and the role of ambiguity in storytelling and relationships.”

And Deadline’s Patrick Hipes reports that Oscilloscope Laboratories has picked up U.S. rights.

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