A film review by Mark Sebastian Jordan
What does it mean to be well? For the title character of Eric Sparks’ new film Madelline, the answer might simply be “not lost.”
The work was premiered Thursday evening at the Mansfield Playhouse, a venue venerated for its live theater, but one not associated with a project like this. The good-sized crowd was welcomed to the venue by Playhouse board president Doug Wertz who expressed enthusiasm for Sparks’ project and how the Playhouse was glad to support other artistic genres by serving as venue for a premiere. Another showing will take place Saturday evening, at 8 pm.
Sparks welcomed attendees and thanked those who helped make the work possible, particularly the actress Haley Noel Bedocs, who helped Sparks create the character of Madelline, a young woman struggling to keep afloat as depression weighs her down.
The writer/director cautioned the audience that the film was slow and meditative, and, indeed, anyone with senses dulled by the average Hollywood action flick would be sorely tried by Madelline. It is contemplative, and to give the feel of Madelline’s mundane life, it slips into a minimalist rhythm: Madelline drags out of bed, she sits on the couch, she walks the streets restlessly, she drinks, she sleeps, she dreams. Next day, the same.
But as soon as the movie began (after a moment of adjustment for technical difficulties), it was evident that this film would be almost as much about sound as image. Before anything was even discernible visually, the sound of birds drenched in surreal reverberation slowly yielded to the dull roar of traffic. Before we even see Madelline, we’ve been dragged from her dream world into her real world.
Once we do see her, it’s in the daily drudge of her life, silent, almost submerged by the busy sounds of her world around her: traffic, birds, a café espresso machine, a dog, a train. Bedocs communicates Madelline’s agony through her large eyes, fit for a 1920s silent film star, but at the same time, it’s never easy to get under her skin. Sparks keeps Madelline somewhat abstracted, a little distant, carefully calculated in his artsy framing of shots. Indeed, it’s startling to see how an artistic eye can make one see the familiar sites of downtown Mansfield as sternly beautiful.
If her real world conversation is sparse, it’s chatty compared to her thought world, where all words cease and Madelline’s regular beauty is masked by a Harlequin-like figure in black and white makeup, painted black teardrops or sunrays radiating out from her eyes. The Madelline-Harlequin never speaks, rarely looks up, then descends into the inky darkness. As the young woman is about to slip off into her alter-ego, sounds distort ever further.
The young woman’s only escapes are her sun-saturated dreams while she sleeps, and her therapy sessions with Dr. Wickmeyer, played with avuncular warmth by Steve Russell. The doctor quietly encourages Madelline to find her way to a point where she can deal with the world, without pushing her or leading her by the nose. She tries hitting a bar one night, and ends up getting picked up by a barfly named John, played with seedy assurance by Beau Roberts, but he’s long gone before she wakes in the morning. When talking with her friends, she’s vacant and lost. Wandering a wintry night street haunted by the wail of a distant train in the Flats, she seems barely able to hang on.
Something changes when she bumps into Richard, played with stuttering charm by Hayden Eighinger. Startled to find someone possibly having an even harder time dealing with the world, she faltering engages him in conversation. This crack in her gloom seems about to break open her world when one night she pushes impatiently towards a kiss, a movement so bold that it feels like an action sequence, bringing a wave of laughter from the audience. Richard’s panicked reaction was heartbreaking.
But Madelline’s world has started turning in a new direction. Her alter ego’s black tears start to fade, though Madelline still slips often into her thought world, though perhaps not as deeply as before. Sounds start to open up more clearly around her, and her eyes stop being pulled down by gravity, but instead look up at the world she’s beginning to tie herself to, one thread at a time. Finally, by her last dream, we find her sunny dreamworld empty, for Madelline herself has slipped away into the land of the living, to the accompaniment of the luminous music of Rob Hemmick, heard frequently throughout the film.
Sparks has crafted a lovely and loving arthouse film in Madelline. I think it might benefit from one or two less slips into the thought world as Madelline begins to find her footing, and perhaps a little more tightening of the stately rhythms of the film as the woman’s pulse begins to come to life. But there’s no question the film is beautiful and hypnotic, a gentle meditation on connecting to life.
For Madelline, there is no illusion of endless perfect happiness. She has merely found that by connecting, she can be part of a world where everyone has the potential of finding moments of happiness.
That’s the kind of wellness we all need to find.