Learning Lines. And Crossing Them.

“I want to deepen the work,” Evangeline says.

Evangeline (Molly Parker) is a theater director and Josephine Decker’s film “Madeline’s Madeline,” which opens on Aug. 10, eavesdrops on her rehearsals for a theater piece starring Madeline (Helena Howard), a high school student and her troupe’s newest member. As the play develops, Evangeline draws more and more blatantly on Madeline’s own life, destabilizing a young woman who is already pretty unstable.

“This process is so intimate,” Evangeline murmurs.

Evangeline isn’t wrong. Not about that, anyway. Acting’s demands are personal as well as technical. Actors often have to perform a role badly, over and over and over again, before they can perform it well, which is embarrassing and exposing. This conspires to give a director or teacher or coach a lot of power and an actor — unless that actor is a star — very little.

How does a director fix reasonable boundaries? Where is the line between exploration and manipulation? “My God, I wish that I knew!,” Ms. Decker said in a telephone interview. She devised the film with her actors, practicing “deep listening,” she said. Evangeline, who listens a lot more shallowly and doesn’t recognize her art-making as exploitative, is a skewed self-portrait. In characterizing the relationship between a director and her actors, Ms. Decker unconsciously echoed Evangeline’s own words. “It’s sticky,” she said. “It’s intimate and, you know, it’s sticky.”

“Madeline’s Madeline” is only the most recent work to color this relationship as fraught, even predatory. It’s a trope that first found its light with “Trilby,” George du Maurier’s 1894 gothic melodrama, now best known in the 1931 film version, “Svengali,” in which John Barrymore’s ultracreepy vocal coach (the title role) makes crazy eyes at a naïve soprano, Marian Marsh’s Trilby. His hypnosis frees her voice. Then it kills her.

Leave a Response