Written and Directed by: Josephine Decker
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.