Junebug is the second feature film to be noted on this blog with an art dealer named Madeleine as a main character. And like Madeleine Gray, from (Untitled) of 2009, we like her (most of the time). We might like her more if we were seeing her in her own element—the big city art world—but the dramatic momentum of Junebug is fueled by the friction of cultural clashes. So when Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) travels to rural North Carolina with her new husband (Alessandro Nivola) to meet his family, we see her through their eyes—that is, as a weirdo.
Even weirder is the man she is really there to see: a reclusive, self-taught artist named David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor)—Madeleine owns a gallery in Chicago devoted to “outsider” artists like him. Wark’s violent, sexually charged paintings immediately recall the works of Henry Darger. In place of Darger’s scores of massacred children, Wark details sprawling scenes of Civil War era battles, slavery and rebellion, rife with severed heads, half-human snakes and huge penises ejaculating bullets. Since he says he has never personally known an African American (he uses another term), he paints the faces of white people he’s met on top of dark-skinned bodies. Wark sees himself as a collaborator with God, and says his job is “to make the invisible visible.”
Director Phil Morrison allows our eyes to linger for a long while on Wark’s paintings, which were created specifically for the film by Brooklyn artist, Ann Wood. Their presence is more than superficial, carrying thematic weight as the “outsider” motif parallels Madeleine’s situation as an oddity in her current surroundings.
For her part, Madeleine is overwhelmingly enthusiastic about Wark and his work. “I love all the dog heads and computers and all the scrotums,” she gushes. But does she really understand what he’s doing, or who he is as a complete person? Wark’s plea for her to accept Jesus Christ as her savior is simply ignored, and when he reveals his anti-semitism, it gives her pause, but she ultimately lets it slide as long as he signs her gallery contract.
Charming and worldly (she was born in Japan and raised in Africa), Madeleine is good at what she does and knows what she wants. However, with the exception of Amy Adams’ character, her in-laws treat her with stand-offish skepticism, merely tolerating her and her city-slicker ways. They’re dumbfounded when she greets them with a kiss on each cheek, and her mother-in-law immediately speculates about whether Madeleine looks like she can cook.
Nonetheless, Madeleine seems to really try to fit in (though babies cry when presented to her and group prayer makes her visibly uncomfortable). The rest of the time, her smile beams generously and her love for her husband is so palpable it keeps people up at night. We’re behind her, except when her professional ambitions eclipse her loyalty to family.
As a director, Morrison is shrewd enough to use stereotypes without making them seem one-dimensional. The art dealer is a stylish, charismatic atheist from a wealthy background who speaks with an accent, while the small town southerners are not well-traveled, but deeply religious and committed to family and tradition. We observe their faults, as well as their virtues, and weigh the simplicity of country living against the complexities of city life. We also question what it really means to be an outsider. It is all in one’s perspective: Madeleine has come from the outside to bring an artist into her world, but one who probably doesn’t even fully understand what is happening to him. One may wonder if Wark really needs people like her in his life, and where the lines are drawn between appreciation, interference and exploitation.