Magnificent Obsessions is a monthly column featuring close readings by our resident formal analyst, Veronica Fitzpatrick. Each month, she takes a bite-size snapshot of a cinematic moment summoned by the issue’s theme: this is love as scrutiny.
Conventional cinematic grammar handles “work” by omission. An ellipses conveniently condenses unremarkable time, or a training sequence shrink-wraps the effort before accomplishment, and not because work is grueling—grueling is okay, can even be spectacular, as when exertion deforms the body, splitting the ballerina’s toenail on a hardwood floor—but because it’s boring. Modes of repetition without discernible reward are monastic at best and depressingly self-contained at worst; such endeavors amount to doing roughly the same thing again and again to demonstrate a capacity for commitment, like taking a test designed to measure one’s test-taking talent.
This is why something like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is so radical to some audiences and yet radically familiar to others, who perhaps recall their mothers’ or their own perpetual movements of smoothing a day into sequential tasks. We see the work of living at a pace inspired, if not fully dictated, by real time, where a dropped dinner plate is tantamount to a fiery explosion. If Dielman is an extreme example of work made visible on-screen, in which “making” (the bed, the meals, the necessary errand stops) is numbingly molecular, on the other end of the spectrum are films that illuminate work’s unpredictability, the chaos of process from which no participant, and especially not the artist, is safe.
Alternately fidgety and glazed—like its teenage protagonist—Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a meditation on the “breakthrough:” a slippery unit of transformative growth in art and performance, liberally applied and little understood. It might seem odd to call a film that’s been critically lauded as kinetic, disorienting, and feverish a “meditation”—but if the work resists stillness, its restlessness nonetheless embraces an associative logic, linking images to images and sounds across images with cultivated indifference to narrative causality.
Early in the film, Madeline (Helena Howard) barrels out of after-school theater class into her mother Regina’s (Miranda July) parked car, shrieking for her to duck and drive. Lit with July’s talent for wide-eyed panic, Regina tenses at the wheel; she can’t hide and drive at the same time, and what happened anyway? Were the other students mean to her? What are they running from? We know what from: we saw Madeline get recruited by her fellow actors into a not-actually-funny mooning conspiracy aimed from the projection booth at their director, Evangeline (Molly Parker). But when Madeline explains, the in-joke falls flat. Regina is so unmoored by the pointlessness of their getaway, the disproportionate urgency, the false alarm, that she bursts into anxious tears, and Madeline—faced with her mother’s utter inability to enter the “scene” and disgusted by her grotesque overreaction—visibly deflates, curling into a customary slump against the passenger window and waiting, as we do, for this episode to end.
Madeline’s ricochet from giggly mania to catatonic sulk draws us a map, not only for her later emotional vacillations (meant to signal sketches of her unnamed mental illness), but also for the film’s overarching approach to affect—which is to say, a mercurial approach, fitting for a project whose center is a young woman who lives in constant navigation of both her and her mother’s ever-shifting interior terrain. However much we’re made to focus on Madeline’s volatility, ranging from mood swings to aggravated assault, Madeline’s Madeline also underscores a kind of parental conduct that’s recognizably well-meaning but oblivious to boundaries. At one point, lost to exasperation, Regina makes good on the ultimate disciplinary cliché, literally turning the car around. In another scene, Regina discovers Madeline half-watching porn in their basement with a couple of boys from the neighborhood. Deaf to Madeline’s protests, Regina plops down among them, goading one to go ahead and whip it out (he does not).
So both women are actors, they act out. Both behave unpredictably, reacting to sensations of powerlessness against past and potential abandonment: Regina by her daughter, as Madeline symbolically exchanges her for a surrogate mother in Evangeline, and Madeline by Evangeline, who solicits but eventually retreats from her star student’s singular affection. Both are also haunted by the spectral absence of Madeline’s unseen father, which emanates from the pinups taped around the basement, and is amplified by the reveal of white Evangeline’s Black husband, family, and friends (as well as the extra-textual partner Decker references in Simran Hans’ terrific interview for SSENSE: “I think I was also just writing family systems that connect to mine”). One effect of all these echoes—inherited trauma, maternal attachment, biracial identity–is the suggestion of coherence in an otherwise chaotic film, and therefore a nod to the Jung quote Evangeline glibly dispatches as artistic wisdom: in all chaos, there is a cosmos; in all disorder, a secret order.
In the same interview, Decker attributes Madeline’s breakneck editing rhythm to the oneiric musical influence of George Gershwin’s jazz composition “Rhapsody in Blue.” She describes listening to the piece repeatedly, learning from the loop how sustained recurrence, in jazz as in dreams, may mutate an image, a phrase, a leitmotif. Incidentally, “Rhapsody in Blue” also inspired a much earlier experimental work about the perils of acting, though the obstacles faced by the eponymous performer of Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapić’s The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra are at once more narratively straightforward (i.e., hard to get work in Hollywood) and formally oblique: shot by Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) in the makeshift black box of Vorkapić’s painted kitchen, 9413 embraced not only the style, but the handy economy of expressionism, staging much of its action in graphic silhouette with handmade miniature “sets.”
Florey reportedly played Gershwin’s record throughout filming, to saturate the actors with the rhythm of the blues. The result is ecstatic and despairing. Success, in this world, is signaled by disappearance: behind a mask, into a coveted role. Redemption from failure is also disappearance, but only in death. We pause on a papery cutout of 9413’s headstone before his jagged spirit sprouts wings and ascends, from the depths of Hollywood to heaven.
Though the actors’ imperative to “use it,” where it stands for the gamut of experiences and emotional textures, presumes that every feeling’s instrumental function may be clear, graspable, and harmless, there’s a well-documented dark side to improvisational energy, to working without scripts and roles; boundaries that protect as well as corral. When Decker obliquely refers to having at one time incorporated some aspect of lead actress Howard into a draft of their film, we glimpse the danger inherent to such explicitly vulnerable collaboration. But when, in Madeline’s Madeline, creative power devolves from Evangeline to her mutinous ensemble, and Ashley Connors’ previously gauzy cinematography simultaneously sharpens into broad-daylight focus, we see, and are left with, a clear picture of improvisation’s generative potency. Only whether Madeline disappears down the street, or our access to her path expires, is left unclear.
Sharing an interest in performance’s subtractive power is Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria. In both films, the pressure of creating the work, of transforming it, inhabiting it, living it twice, of translating its nuances while keeping it “raw,” creates a definitive formal rupture. Sils Maria follows seasoned actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) across Europe, as Enders considers, accepts, and ambivalently prepares to act in a new production of the play that launched her career: Maloja Snake, an office melodrama in which personal assistant Sigrid seduces and discards her older employer, Helena. Maria was 18 when esteemed director Wilhelm Melchior plucked her from obscurity to originate the part of Sigrid; decades later, reluctantly recast as Helena, she resists Valentine’s efforts to argue on behalf of the opposing role’s complexity, preferring to calcify her lifelong contempt for Helena’s suffering, her weakness.
Maria and Valentine move into Melchior’s alpine home to prepare the role in seclusion. As the women run lines, with personal assistant Valentine reading for personal assistant Sigrid, imbuing the soon-memorized lines with compelling detachment as the camera circles their provisional blocking like a cautious animal, the boundaries between players and roles and past and present progressively dissolve.
Throughout these scenes, Maria breaks character to complain, eliciting and debating Valentine’s expansive interpretations of the text. Assayas’ film has no shortage of things to say about art in general, and filmmaking in particular: from Maria’s tipsy derision of unserious professional offers (christening a mall, acting in a horror film), to its sendup of a superhero movie’s glaring exposition, Sils Maria announces awareness of the hierarchy—and hypocrisy—that distinguishes, or appears to distinguish, real work from fluff.
Yet everywhere the film invokes distinction, difference is undermined. The backyard patio, the kitchen nook, the property’s surrounding rocky trails—all become extensions of the imagined stage on which Maria and Valentine rehearse. Finally, one morning, they wake early to hike toward the true maloja snake—a cloud phenomenon curling in serpentine formation through the valley—and end up arguing over whether, at the end of the play, Helena dies or simply disappears. Valentine insists on the play’s ambiguity, but Maria is adamant: she goes out for a hike and never comes back, it seems clear enough to me. It’s snowing. They argue about directions, for the hike, the play, but only Valentine can spin the map to reflect their changing position. “The text is like an object,” she says, “it’s gonna change perspective depending on where you’re standing.”
We cut to Maria overtaking her on the narrow pass. A lip of dry grass rises in the foreground; single-file, they march under it, moving out of sight, and the frame holds as the tops of weeds twitch in the wind. Moments later, Maria emerges, and the image waits before cutting to an apparent reverse shot of her back as she regards the landscape below. “Look there!” She collapses, pointing. But the mist that’s there is sort of hanging, not winding. Slowly the camera moves around Maria’s torso, pulling her into the frame’s center as she turns back to call over her shoulder. When she realizes there’s no one behind her, she shouts for “Val,” sending the syllable around the mountain. We see her traipsing over wide and short distances, as if to eliminate the possibility that Valentine just hung back. She went out for a hike and never came back. The film cuts back to the valley, now cottony with clouds as the snake pours in growing density over the water’s surface.