“Everything I do is affected by the fact that I am a woman. I can only speak from my experience and thus I think it is natural that the lead role in my film [Madeleine Is…] was a woman and done completely from her point of view.”
– Sylvia Spring
Sylvia Spring’s 1971 film Madeline Is… is cited as the first Canadian feature film directed by a woman, and was screened at the Women and Film International Film Festival in Toronto in 1973. Reviewers accurately pointed out its feminist sensibility – as the title suggests, this film is all about Madeleine (Nicola Lipman), and her experiences as a Canadian woman. Events are filtered through Madeleine’s point of view, and at various times we have access to her subjectivity. At the beginning of the film, Madeleine walks down the streets of Vancouver, reading an apology letter from her Québécois father, whose voice dominates the soundtrack. Madeleine clearly made the decision to remove herself from her angry father, making a life for herself in Vancouver.
The budget was approximately $100,000 – fairly low, which was and is common for female-directed films in Canada. There are times when the budget restraints are made apparent – the images are a little fuzzy, the editing is choppy, and the soundtrack is tinny. Critics at the time derided the film for both its amateurish technology as well as its content, and it fared very poorly at the box office. However, this film is representative of a vibrant period in the Canadian film industry, and was sponsored by the Canadian Film Development Corporation, a late-60s organization meant to stimulate a successful domestic film industry.
Regardless of amateurish acting and technological aspects, Madeleine Is… is a fascinating feminist work. Sylvia Spring’s camera frames faces in close-ups, with Madeleine getting the most screen time. The camera lingers on Madeleine as she frequently frowns and furrows her brow in reaction to her “political” boyfriend, Toro (John Juliani). Toro is the type of person who is “always organizing” as Madeleine complains: he is unsentimental, seeing friendship and relationships as a way to politically use other people to further one’s agendas. Toro is a shallow chauvinist, who uses words like “organize” and “revolution” but doesn’t seem to have any real political convictions, except for the idea that Madeleine should not wear “pants”, and must always be ready for him when he wants to use her sexually. She frequently calls Toro out for not giving her any credit for knowing things, and for leaving her out of his conversations with other men.
Madeleine is portrayed as sincere, thoughtful, and creative. She is a painter who befriends older people, and frequently has dazzling daydreams about a mysterious clown (of course, when she claims to have met her clown in person, Toro dismisses her fantasies and says they are “fucking crazy”). Madeleine’s clown fantasies add a sense of brightness and experimentation to the film. Film scholar Kay Armatage wrote that the film has a “straightforward warmth”, which she attributes to Spring’s direction. There is truth to this, but Nicola Lipman also deserves credit, as she provides unexpected depth to Madeleine through her facial expressions and optimistic attitude, despite at times over-enunciating her lines. She is perhaps naïve, wanting to believe the best about people who ultimately let her down. When she returns home from her “date” with the clown, David (Wayne Specht), she finds Toro in bed with another woman, framing it as a “surprise” threesome. Madeleine asserts herself, and is devastated, running out of her own apartment.
Spring subtly calls attention to the way women define themselves through men, using Madeleine as an example. The voice of her father haunts her at the beginning of the film, and her live-in boyfriend Toro constantly undermines her. Her fantasy clown is also a man, and she is drawn to David, as she believes him to be the real-life version of her imaginary companion. When Madeleine gets sick from running around Vancouver in a panic all night, her elderly drunken friend John (Gord Robertson) “rescues” her, and Toro’s friend Barry (Ronald Ulrich) takes care of her. Madeleine is not afraid to assert herself, and frequently speaks her mind, but she surrounds herself with men who don’t really want to hear what she’s saying. Madeleine has lots to say, but the men in her life believe what they have to say is much more important. Such is life as a woman.
Perhaps Madeleine’s greatest moment of strength comes when she kicks Toro and his band of hippies out of her apartment. She firmly lets all of them know that she pays for that apartment, and it is her rightful property. She calls out Toro’s empty political “movement”, and her claim that he is “sick with power” could be applied to any number of men. Of course he blames “the system” and compares himself to Machiavelli, which further proves that Toro is just a sexist, megalomaniac, faux-intellectual. The film’s most overtly feminist moment comes when Madeleine forcefully tells Toro, “I am not an object”. Toro’s return toward the end of the film is an example of why women are fearful of men. When a woman rejects a man, the man often turns violent – Toro trespasses into David’s apartment and threatens him and Madeleine with a hammer, drugs them, and forces them to have sex in front of him. Men’s voices echo in her head as she runs along the rocks on her dream beach. She eventually confronts her clown, but this time, it is her laughing self, not David. She is her own dream companion.
Madeleine Is… is an open-ended title, which can be filled in by any number of words. Madeleine is creative, youthful, confused, optimistic, scared, strong, and in the process of learning what she really wants. Madeleine Is is a flawed but earnest and valuable Canadian feature film, showing us what it was to be a woman in Vancouver in the late 60s/early 70s. Regardless of its flaws, this is a genuine portrait of female experience, something not portrayed in Canadian cinema until this point in time.