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When the news first broke that “Madeline’s Madeline” filmmaker Josephine Decker would be making a starry movie about the author Shirley Jackson, it was hard not to be disappointed (or at least caught by surprise) that one of the most feral, elastic, and vividly singular artists of contemporary American cinema was following her first masterpiece with something that might be classified as a biopic. Shudder. Speaking as one of Decker’s still-fervent devotees, the hope was that her next project would find her reaching deeper into her own mind instead of squeezing her immense talents into the architecture of someone else’s imagination, and the fear was that the financial demands of a period piece would constrain her uniquely generative creative process. “Madeline’s Madeline” is a film that’s inextricable from the story of its making — would a more traditional production, docked to a linear screenplay that Decker didn’t write, allow her the freedom that her febrile genius demands?
The answer is a wildly enthusiastic “sort of!” To begin with, “Shirley” is no more of a biopic than “Bright Star,” “An Angel at My Table,” or “Shakespeare in Love.” Adapted from the Susan Scarf Merrell novel of the same name, Decker’s characteristically sawtoothed and delirious new film is set in the same latent space between fact and fantasy — a story and its telling — where she located all of her previous work. There are long passages and dark pockets of the movie in which you can feel Decker fighting the rigid structure of Sarah Gubbins’ screenplay to a stalemate, but also others in which the film’s relatively straightforward nature only makes it that much easier to appreciate how Decker is bending the walls to her will. As Jackson wrote in “The Haunting of Hill House”: “No live organism can continue for long...
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