Who can tell which stories? Or rather, what stories can be told by whom? These questions have been cropping up in the cultural conversation with increasing frequency. One day, rumors are flying that Disney plans to cast a white actor in the title role of their live-action remake of “Mulan” (rumors which, granted, have proven untrue). The next, Scarlett Johansson is playing a Japanese android or a transgender man. Meanwhile, “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” manage to be both box-office hits and testaments to what can happen when people of color are given rein to craft their own portrayals in film.
But where do we draw the line, and how—not just in regard to representation but also authorship? Last year, “Call Me by Your Name” emerged as an aching, beautiful queer love story under the helm of openly gay director Luca Guadagnino. Twelve years earlier, “Brokeback Mountain” emerged as an aching, beautiful queer love story under the helm of openly straight director Ang Lee. But isn’t it a triumph that in this day and age a queer man can direct a queer movie and it can win an Oscar? Doesn’t that signal progress? Sure, but does that detract from the quality of the earlier film? How do we account, if at all, for the fact that the authors of both films’ source material identify as straight?
It’s hard to argue that we wouldn’t live in a better world if more queer artists were empowered to create and share their stories and given a platform to do so. But would we also live in a better world if only queer writers wrote queer novels and short stories and only queer directors and screenwriters adapted those novels into movies? (You can replace “queer” with any number of other descriptors and the question still holds.) Taken to the extreme, how can an artist create any work of fiction without stepping outside of their own perspective at least to some degree? How far, and under what conditions, can they stray?
It’s a thorny issue, one that is perhaps without a clear-cut answer, though that does nothing to deter director Josephine Decker from diving in headfirst in her new film, “Madeline’s Madeline.” The film takes on the perspective of a teenage member of an experimental theater troupe, Madeline (Helena Hunt, who is every bit the prodigy the character she plays is). Madeline is a biracial young woman with an unspecified mental illness. This does not matter, in the sense that Decker could have crafted a character with a totally separate identity and thrust them into the narrative without altering the film’s overall message (to the extent that a film can be said to have a single message). At the same time, it also matters quite a lot—in fact, it couldn’t matter more—as the specificity of the way in which Madeline experiences the world colors the film entirely from beginning to end.
“You are not the cat. You are inside the cat,” a woman’s face, shot in close up, says, addressing the camera—and thereby the audience—head on. “Madeline’s Madeline” opens with these words, making no attempt to conceal what a disorienting and beguiling experience watching the film will be. The face, we soon learn, belongs to a member of Madeline’s theater troupe (Okwui Okpokwasili), though whether those words were ever spoken or merely dreamed is never elaborated on.
The words can easily be taken as a bit of esoteric acting advice, a mantra, as a good portion of the troupe’s exercises during their rehearsals involve acting out the behavior of animals. We see into Madeline’s reverie, as she—in costume as an enormous turtle—scrambles over the sand toward the sea, shot in dizzying first-person perspective. The troupe members wear homemade foam hats shaped like pigs’ heads as they perform. Madeline, we learn, is famous among the actors for her cat impression. Early on, in one of the film’s most tender and carefree scenes, Madeline stalks cat-like around her kitchen table, her mother, Regina (Miranda July), indulging her, rubbing her tummy, reacting patiently as Madeline-the-cat upturns a bowl of potpourri with a swipe of the claw.
Having been afforded that glimpse into paradise, its all the more painful to watch the fraught relationship between mother and daughter play out. They’re on different wavelengths; they cannot communicate in a way the other understands. Regina, apparently a single mother of two, is wracked with worry for Madeline, who recently has returned home after a period of institutionalization. She is unable to mask her anxiety, which only serves to alienate her daughter by reminding her of her difference, leading her to lash out and reinforce her mother’s belief that there’s cause for concern. Regina misinterprets joy for terror, unable to jump anywhere but to the worst conclusion. She loves her daughter—it’s all too clear in the furrow of July’s brow and the weariness in her eyes—but cannot express that love in a way that can be felt.
It’s understandable, then, why Madeline is so drawn to her director, Evangeline (Molly Parker). She too recognizes that Madeline is different but identifies that difference as a cause for celebration rather than anxiety. By the time the film opens, Madeline’s talent, her ability to summon up an intense emotion at a moment’s notice as if from nowhere, has endeared her to Evangeline. The troupe’s show, she decides, will center on Madeline, or rather a character named Zia, who is played by and in no way differentiated from Madeline. The contents of that show are nebulous and seem just as mysterious to the actors as to the audience, but if one thing is certain it’s that Madeline is at the center of it all. It’s a relationship that is at once symbiotic and doomed: Madeline sees Evangeline as the platonic ideal of a mother, a perception complicated by Evangeline’s own pregnancy. Evangeline sees Madeline as a muse, a source of endless inspiration and true art, both more and less human than everyone else. Both ask the other to be more (and less) than they are.
If any of this sounds straightforward, it isn’t. Narrative is doled out sparingly in between impressionistic scenes that blur the line between dreams and reality. Madeline sees herself, the screen frosted over and blurry, as she enacts violence against her mother. Everything takes on a prismatic technicolor sheen as Madeline lies in bed and Regina’s voice is heard offscreen explaining to a pharmacist that her daughter has gone off her meds. That turtle costume crops up again with nary an explanation. Madeline is caught watching one of her father’s porn videos with a neighbor and Regina’s scolding is barely audible over the exaggerated grunts and moans that dominate the soundscape for the remainder of the excruciatingly long scene.
The film seems designed intentionally to baffle and polarize audiences. It asks the viewer to do some of the work, to collaborate, just as the actors in the film collaborate in the creation of their art. The result, if you’re willing to accept the premises and take the plunge, is something singular, an exercise in surrendering one’s own perspective to that of the character driving the story. Madeline’s presence is engulfing. It’s best to not worry too much about the film’s more unusual elements and instead to enjoy being temporarily subsumed within Helena Hunt’s triumph of a performance.
Even though the mother–daughter relationship at the heart of “Madeline’s Madeline” is evocative of the themes and narratives of other films, most recently last year’s “Lady Bird,” the filmmaking behind each couldn’t be more different in terms of visuals, sound, editing, and writing. The reason why is obvious: they’re different stories about different people and therefore necessitate different approaches in the realization of their vision. The rendering of specificity is, after all, the true test of any storyteller.
Decker is known to be an experimental filmmaker, and it’s no coincidence that “Madeline’s Madeline” is about experimental theater. Naturally, it’s easy to draw a parallel between her relationship to Helena Hunt and Evangeline’s relationship to Madeline. There’s something self-conscious and careful in the construction of the film, then. If Evangeline is exploiting a young woman’s pain for her art, can’t Decker be accused of doing the same? Is she indicting herself here? One could argue so—but Evangeline is not our protagonist; this is decidedly not her story, though she may wish it to be so, with her desire to enact control and ownership over her actors and their creative output. It’s also not Decker’s story, though she may have co-written and directed it. This, instead, is Madeline’s story, full stop. Why else does Decker go to such lengths to submerge the audience within the landscape of Madeline’s interior self? (Not the cat—but inside the cat.)
How do we identify the line between exploitation and art? What happens when one cannot be differentiated from the other? What “Madeline’s Madeline” arrives at in its mesmerizing, awe-inspiring explosion of a finale is inherent in the film’s very structure and its meticulous, immersive brand of filmmaking: a piece of art must be so radically aligned with the character whose story is being told, even at the risk of being incomprehensible, so as to express something true from a place of empathy rather than exploitation.