One of the first things we see in “Madeline’s Madeline,” a feverish and mercurial brainstorm of a movie, is the hazy figure of a nurse, or perhaps a woman pretending to be a nurse. (Either way, she is played by the actress Okwui Okpokwasili.) She smiles down at the camera and announces, “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor. The emotions you are having are not your own.” We hear a feline purr on the soundtrack. Are we a cat? No, the nurse helpfully informs us: “You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.”
Barely 30 seconds have elapsed and there’s clearly a lot going on here — maybe enough to send some of you bolting for the exits, though at the risk of missing one of the year’s headiest, most dazzlingly assured moviegoing experiences. The writer-director Josephine Decker may trigger an unprepared viewer’s fight-or-flight instincts, but amid the madness of her methods she also sprinkles crucial clues and fascinating questions. Whose perspective are we seeing? Who is orchestrating that perspective? What is the story being told here, and why?
Decker seems less interested in answering these questions than in ensuring we ask them in the first place. As a filmmaker, she is unusually invested in matters of authorial responsibility and narrative agency. She ponders the riddle of what artists owe their audiences, and also the people whose lives they sometimes shape and bend into art.
“Madeline’s Madeline” is the product of a lengthy, improvisation-heavy collaboration between Decker and her star, an astonishing teenage discovery named Helena Howard. It is also a skillful and imaginative blurring of fact and fiction, albeit one that insistently calls the act of such blurring into question.
Hmm. Perhaps it makes sense to return to the beginning, back inside the cat. The cat is one of a few roles essayed by Madeline (Howard), who, at 16, is the youngest member of a New York experimental theater troupe. Madeline, who sometimes also plays a sea turtle, has real acting talent; she also has a vaguely referenced history of mental disturbance. One of the movie’s more playful assertions is that there may be no meaningful distinction between the two.
At home, Madeline carries on an uneasy relationship with her nervous mother, Regina (Miranda July), their interactions pulsing with tenderness and tension. Regina endures Madeline’s wild mood swings and finicky appetite, though occasionally her patience wears thin enough for her to mention her daughter’s recent stint in a psych ward. In the most disturbing episode, Madeline lashes out and scalds her mother with a hot iron, though as with so much in this movie, it’s unclear whether we are witnessing a memory or a hallucination.
Real or imagined, the iron incident soon becomes grist for the dubious artistic process of Madeline’s theater director, Evangeline (Molly Parker). Her company is working on an ambitious new project that keeps shifting according to the whims of Evangeline’s inspiration — the source of which, more than anything else of late, seems to be Madeline. You can see the appeal: Madeline is a fiercely captivating subject, her tough-girl defiance offset by an incandescent vulnerability. The camera may adore her even more than Evangeline does. (The gorgeous, restless cinematography is by Ashley Connor.)
Madeline is also biracial, while her mother and Evangeline are both white — a fact that goes unmentioned even as it adds a quietly unignorable layer to the story. You might register the ethnic diversity of the entire acting troupe — something that becomes more apparent when the performers aren’t cavorting around in animal masks — and also the eagerness with which Evangeline latches on to Madeline’s every personal contribution, especially anything that smacks of abjection or violence.
In other words, “Madeline’s Madeline” is a coming-of-age drama, the tale of a teenage girl caught between two mother figures, one cautious and protective, the other reckless and potentially exploitative. It’s unclear if either guardian will lead Madeline down the right path, toward a truer, deeper reckoning with herself, but it’s gripping nonetheless to watch their tug-of-war play out. You will be awed and repelled by Evangeline’s increasing callousness, and also moved by Regina’s fragility, which stands in sharp contrast to July’s own experimental audacity as a filmmaker and actor (“The Future,” “Me and You and Everyone We Know”).
But if this is the arc of the movie in broad outline, it’s striking to realize just how little it captures the moment-by-moment experience — stimulating, maddening and finally exhilarating — of watching “Madeline’s Madeline” itself. No less than Decker’s 2014 debut features, “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” the movie is an exercise in radical subjectivity. The editing is fragmentary and convulsive. The depth of focus is stubbornly shallow, the edges of the frame often hypnotically blurred. Strange, menacing sounds and crooning voices seem to issue from just beyond the frame. Individual scenes don’t feel dramatized so much as dredged up from the very margins of consciousness.
“In all chaos, there is a cosmos; in all disorder, a secret order,” Evangeline tells Madeline early on, a quote from Jung that also provides an evocative summary of Decker’s formal approach. And what gives this movie its remarkable coherence, shining like a light through the miasma, is the filmmaker’s refusal to separate her characters’ process from her own. It almost goes without saying that Evangeline, an avatar of artistic overreach, is the director’s stand-in, and that Decker may be as guilty of appropriating Howard’s talent and experience as Evangeline is of manipulating Madeline’s. Who gets to tell this young woman’s story? Whose Madeline is it, anyway?
The startling final act, in which the story’s long-simmering tension explodes in a flurry of song, dance and creative energy, provides a clear answer. Think of it as the filmmaker’s attempt to set things right and cede control, to grant Madeline and the remarkable actress who plays her the final word. You could describe “Madeline’s Madeline” as a reclamation or a reckoning, though the title gives the game away: This movie is, in every sense, an act of possession.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, Santa Monica