In style this film is at times reminiscent of the late John Cassavetes’ semi improvised cinema vérité movies, only in colour, not black and white. It will also have many audiences scratching their heads and wondering what on earth is going on.
In the film’s first shot we get a blurred image of a black nurse, reassuring the Madeline of the title that she’s not a cat. Which she appears to think she is, from her behaviour when we first meet her. “What you’re experiencing is a metaphor.”, says the nurse – who is actually an actor. Most of the characters are actors in fact. Maybe the actual film is a metaphor too?
Madeline herself (Helena Howard) is a mentally disturbed, mixed race teenager and a wannabe actress. She has joined a more than somewhat whacko theatre company, led by pregnant director Evangeline (Molly Parker), a sort of female Lee Strasberg in her intensity and control over her devoted troupe. Evangeline becomes so fascinated by her obviously talented new recruit that she abandons the show she is working on to create a new one, which feeds in a somewhat vampirish way on Madeline’s own life. Her mental health problems, her fractious relationship with her mother Regina (Miranda July), who is dominated by her difficult daughter and her threats of violence towards her and the question mark hanging over the identity of Madeline’s unknown black father, with whom at one point in the film she has an unsatisfactory encounter. Does this have anything to do with Evangeline’s relationship with her own black husband? Neither man gets much of a look in, so will we ever know – or care?
With its improvised dialogue and the bizarre antics Evangeline imposes on her enthusiastic theatre company, getting them to perform strange rituals involving animal masks and other strange props, it is all very confusing.
On the plus side it has interesting performances from Parker and July and a charismatic one from newcomer Howard. You might not understand what is going on for her but you can’t take your eyes off her when she is on screen, which is for most of the time.
From a feminist point of view, this is a totally female dominated film and it is possible that director/writer Josephine Decker is trying to say something significant about mental illness, the morality of one artist using another person’s real life for their own artistic ends and even about race and gender. But it is so confusing to follow that all it will do for many people is confirm their view that people working in experimental theatre are totally weird, while real life actors themselves may perhaps smile wryly, as they recall some of the strange antics that have been imposed on them by self involved and pretentious directors in the course of their careers.