So I thought I’d finished with Madonna at about 1 o’clock on Monday but I then couldn’t stop thinking about W.E. all day yesterday either.
For any megafan the film should be satisfyingly self-referential (which somewhat makes up for the patchiness of the rest of it). Interestingly, the plot which is woven into the Wallis/Edward story is set in 1998, the year that Madonna’s major comeback (after Lourdes) album Ray of Light was released with its radiant and hopeful cover shot by Mario Testino. 1998 was also the year after Princess Diana died. And the year of the real-life auction of Wallis-Edward belongings in New York around which W.E. pivots.
Ray of Light opener, ‘Drowned World/Substitute for Love’ was a quiet manifesto about the importance of family and home – an unusually personal theme, compounded by a video (below and above) where she heads out to a party alone, is chased by paparazzi on motorbikes, swooped upon for photographs and generally harassed by strangers. The set-up and message of both the song and video aren’t subtle, but the subject of a lonely, vulnerable woman who everyone wants a piece of was still close enough to Madonna’s real life for us to allow her the space to say something about it.
‘Some things cannot be bought’.
Madonna brings much of her experience of the darkness of fame to the character of Wallis Simpson in W.E. and there is a real empathy and understanding in the retelling – and a desire to reveal and make things beautiful in the process. Even Madonna needs a female rolemodel (scary thought) it seems.
Sometimes I forget that Madonna used to be thought of as a feminist – albeit in a material-girl, totally 80s kind of way. Over the past few decades she’s inspired more debates than any other female star around what women in pop culture/public life can and can’t be or do. We’re endlessly fascinated by her partly because she’s always been deliberately provocative and controversial and partly because she’s constantly changed her look, making herself into an unreal everywoman for whoever’s listening/watching.
Towards the end of this interview for the BBC at the W.E. premiere at Venice Film Festival last month, Madonna makes a point of asking where are the female directors? In the midst of all of the media’s cynicism around her first proper writing/directorial effort, Madonna raising this question is important because it’s true that women are and have always been seriously underrepresented in the most prestigious role in filmmaking: the director.
To paraphrase Ms Ciccone, without more women behind the camera, films will continue to neglect the female point of view to our detriment. There’s no word yet from Madonna about how she might – I don’t know – donate some money to Bird’s Eye View here in the UK or similar women-in-film organisations elsewhere, but in the meantime we’ll have to make do with one movie told from her perspective. The story of a rich American lady marrying into the British aristocracy might not be a universal one (erm), but it’s also a (complicated) love story, and one which is told well, by a woman for a female audience.
Plenty of rubbish films get released every single week and when this comes out in the Spring it won’t be one of them. Once again Madonna’s dared to do exactly what she wants and has almost got away with it: good.
Important notes for filmfans: the cinematographer who worked on W.E. with M is Hagen Bogdanski whose previous credits include The Young Victoria and The Lives of Others – not bad. On Sunday night in the Q&A she also said she’d been inspired by the look and feel of the sublime Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose and Tom Ford’s A Single Man. And you can tell.
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