It’s difficult to make a documentary about yourself without coming across as a narcissistic bore. Every now and then, there’s an Agnès Varda level genius who can turn their personal travel journals into god-tier masterpieces like The Gleaners and I or a celebrity with long-buried familial skeletons in the closet to unearth for cathartic entertainment, as in Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. For the most part, though, it’s difficult for an audience to match a filmmaker’s fascination with their own everyday lives & relationships. The recent documentary/essay Madame somehow clears that hurdle with ease even without a flashy editing style or a grandly traumatic familial mystery to unearth. It’s a quiet, intimate documentary about a gay filmmaker’s loving but distanced relationship with his own grandmother, nothing more. And yet it has a lot of genuinely fascinating things to say that reach far beyond the expected navel-gazing of that subject.
Stéphane Riethauser structures Madame as a posthumous conversation with his deceased grandmother, mostly filling her in on all the things he didn’t get to say or convey in the years when they were most estranged. Those were the years when Riethauser was a closeted homosexual (at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s & 90s, no less), afraid to come out to even his most loving family members in fear that they would reject him for being himself. He starts by promising a frank discussion about gender, love, and sexuality from his own perspective, but the more he attempts to meet his grandmother on equal footing, he realizes that she was an iconoclast in her own time in a near-identical way. Ostracized by her Catholic family for divorcing young and making her own way as a businesswoman decades before Riethauser was born, his grandmother was no stranger to the alienation of being Different in a world that values conservatism & conformity. By recounting their respective, rigidly gendered upbringings, Madame sketches out a wide range of microscopic ways sexism & homophobia are reinforced in modern social structures, and how that can obstruct meaningful human connections – including the one between a loving grandmother & grandson with a shared defiant spirit.
Even beyond its prodding at larger social & philosophical ills, Madame is also just a wonderful looking film. Riethauser sequences tons of beautiful archival footage from his childhood into a gloomy diary-in-motion, with constant narration pointing out what’s rotting just under the surface of a seemingly happy family life. That molded photo album aesthetic wouldn’t be enough to fully engage an audience outside his immediate family circle, though. What really makes the film special is its exploration of homophobia as the “offspring” of sexism. It directly links the ways he & his grandmother were suppressed by their conservative, religious upbringings, and how rigid gender expectations created entirely unnecessary boundaries between them even after they broke free of those social shackles. It’s a long stare in the mirror in the way a lot of tedious, navel-gazing self-portraits can be, but it’s one of the few examples that transcends the expected limitations of that choice by making the personal universal. We all suffer under social expectations of traditional gender performance, and we’re all worse off for it.