Breaking News

Review: In ‘Madeline’s Madeline,’ Hazy Boundaries Between Life and Art

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

“What you are experiencing is just a metaphor.” I’m thinking of having those words, which are spoken by a nurse in what may be a dream at the start of “Madeline’s Madeline,” tattooed on my arm. Even though — or just because — I’m not entirely sure what they mean. How can an experience, which seems like the very definition of a literal phenomenon, be a metaphor to the person having it? And why “just” a metaphor? Is that supposed to be reassuring (the line is spoken by someone in a nurse’s uniform) or terrifying?

One of the assumptions of this seductive, disturbing, exasperating movie — the third feature written and directed by Josephine Decker (after “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely”) — is that conventional distinctions don’t necessarily apply. Between fantasy and reality, certainly, but also between authenticity and artifice, theater and therapy, art and life. Madeline herself, a New York teenager played with bracing conviction by Helena Howard, is not much interested in separating those things. This is partly a sign of adolescent confusion, possibly a symptom of mental instability and very much a matter of creative principle, for both Madeline and Ms. Decker.

Madeline divides her time — also her loyalty and eventually her resentment — between her mother, Regina (Miranda July), and a charismatic theater director named Evangeline (Molly Parker). One of the youngest members of Evangeline’s company, Madeline participates in workshops and exercises in preparation for what looks like a production of “The Three Little Pigs.” She spends time channeling animal behavior (sometimes as a sea turtle, more often as a cat) and delving into raw, primal emotions. She does some of that at home too.

Regina worries about Madeline, which is understandable — she alludes to her daughter’s time “in the psych ward” — and also, to Madeline, infuriating. Evangeline, meanwhile, encourages her protégée to take risks and dig deeper, perhaps to the point of insensitivity to Madeline’s vulnerability. The audience, deeply embedded in the girl’s subjectivity, wavers between impatience with Regina’s uptightness and alarm at Evangeline’s recklessness, all the while trying to locate a stable perspective from which to judge the situation.

Which is precisely what Ms. Decker withholds. Her scenes are collages of dissociated sounds and decentered images, and her approach to narrative is oblique and subjective. The result is less a lack of clarity — we can usually figure out what is going on, and how Madeline feels about it — than a suggestive fuzziness, the sense that experiences are also metaphors.

Occasionally, the contours of a conventional coming-of-age story are visible through the haze, making Ms. Decker’s techniques seem as willful and contrived as some of Evangeline’s theatrical conceits. Evangeline, fascinated by Madeline’s raw talent and eager to make use of it, risks crossing the line between empathy and exploitation. In her own way, Ms. Decker does too. But if “Madeline’s Madeline” is sometimes unconvincing and frequently unnerving, it is never uninteresting. In its final moments it ascends into heady, almost visionary territory, like a balloon caught in a sudden updraft, and becomes a singular and strange experience.

Madeline’s Madeline
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C4 of the New York edition with the headline: Is a Young Woman’s Reality Just Metaphor?. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Source link

No comments