Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Written and Directed by: Josephine Decker

Madeline_s_Madeline[1]One of the core tales of modern cinema is Fellini’s 8 ½ . The film has two defining characteristics: one is that it’s the story of an ambitious and troubled filmmaker, struggling to depict his life on-screen in intricate details. The other is its moments of surrealism. 8 ½ has spawned a number of imitations, and the latest may be Madeline’s Madeline.

Decker’s new film is a bizarre story, one that can’t be understood without at least some interpretive effort on the audience’s part. It’s main cast include 16 year-old Madeline (Helena Howard), her drama teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker) and her mother Regina (Miranda July). Madeline is a gifted actor with ambitions to go to Julliard or NYU. She also appears to suffer from an unspecified form of hallucinatory mental illness. The illness is never named, so while it may be something specific that some viewers may be able to identify, it’s functional role is simply to render Madeline disoriented and vulnerable.

It’s hard to say much more about the plot without giving things away. It is essentially a collage of comic jabs at drama-class activities and uncomfortable scenes in which what exactly is real is left entirely ambiguous. What I can say, however, is that amongst the “weird” movies I’ve seen, Madeline’s Madeline stands out as one I’d feel comfortable recommending to mainstream viewers. Even if not it’s entirely clear how its whole plot fits together, each scene is logically coherent and consists of accessible and energetic dialogue and colorful imagery.

Perhaps the best way to explain the notability of Madeline’s Madeline, however, is to look at its relationship to 8 ½ . The similarities are evident in the piece of theatre it centres around, however the differences are notable as well. While 8 ½ speaks to ego and loss-of-control, as an auteur tells his own tale, Madeline is not the director of her own story. Instead she is subject to the creative vision of Evangeline. This difference in turn creates a new similarity with the 8 ½ -subgenre as Madeline’s on-stage relationship with Evangeline comes to mirror her relationship with Regina. It can also be said that while 8 ½ speaks to the impossibility of making a story of one’s own life, Madeline’s Madeline reminds us that it is even harder to tell the story of others.

At 1h 34 minutes, Madeline’s Madeline is rather concise relative to 8 ½. This is a trait I generally like in movies and I indeed preferred Madeline’s Madeline to 8 ½. The former film, much likes its modern adaptation Synecdoche New York, dragged on, but in fairness it had to to make its point. Madeline’s Madeline ‘s ending ,meanwhile, was comparably abrupt, leaving me with a blinked-and-I-missed-it feeling. If Madeline’s Madeline has a weakness than, it’s that its concision leaves it without the memorable identity that films like 8 ½ and Synecdoche, New York have. Overall, however, this sacrifice is worth it. Maybe Madeline’s Madeline has a mind-blowing coherent thesis and perhaps it’s just an extended drama class activity. Either way, it may be the most lively and engaging movie the 8 ½ cannon has ever produced.


8 ½ (1963)

Directed by: Federico Fellini, Written by: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and
Brunello Rondi

8MezzoArguably Federico Fellini’s chef d’oeuvre, 8 ½ remains one of cinemas most respected and influential works. It has spawned a musical, “9,” and inspired numerous other films including Synecdoche New York. Watching it today, however, I can’t say it struck me to the degree it probably struck audiences upon its release. 8 ½ is the story of Guido, an ambitious cinematic director, struggling to make a semi-autobiographical work. He continuously finds himself distracted by his philandering love life and concern that his film is not profound enough.

8 ½ stands out for disjointed, not quite-realist plot lines, and its densely populated dream sequences. This trait, however, is one that has not transmitted well through the ages, as while black and white film continues to have its aesthetic charms, its hard for it to dazzle color-adjusted viewers. 8 ½’s real shortcoming, however, is in its premise. Authors/filmakers writing about struggling artists/filmmakers is no novel concept. Guido’s character prevents 8 ½ from standing out within this sub-genre. We know Guido’s mind is predominated with sexual fantasies, the worst of which are certainly misogynistic. We also get some sense that he contextualizes his sexuality as a rebellion against Italian Catholicism, perhaps keeping him from engaging in more gender-based-self-criticism. Finally, we are given the impression he is a Marxist sympathizer, and he is subject to pressure to produce films with philosophical messages. Over the film’s 2 hour 16 minute run time, none of these traits are presented in a way to particularly individualize Guido. He is neither sufficiently troubled by nor sufficiently comfortable with his sleaziness, for instance, for it to color his personality. His politics are underdeveloped, as is his Catholicism. While none of this is unintentional (perhaps were Guido less bland he would have had an easier time becoming inspired), it makes it hard to take much out of his story. His lack of a sense of direction may be a compelling struggle, but his audience is left in the same uninspired headspace as he is, making for an unsatisfying viewing experience.

8 ½ can still be enjoyed as a milestone piece of cinema, and its structure and staging certainly inspire. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by not finding the magic in it that has sparked the imaginations of numerous filmmakers through the ages.