Last night was the New York premiere of “W.E.”, the film directed and co-written by Madonna, at the Museum of Modern Art. For a slow Sunday night in December, it was a pretty star-studded affair: Julian Schnabel, Patti Smith, Valentino, Chloe Sevigny and so forth all schlepped to midtown to pay homage to the Queen of Pop’s feature directorial debut. But, for me, the highlight of the evening took place before the movie had even started: During her series of glorious introductions (MOMA’s Klaus Biesenbach called her an “artist,” Harvey Weinstein called her a “Renaissance woman who does so many incredible things well”), from my seat on the side of the theater I witnessed the Material Girl get a last minute primping from her glam squad. There was a makeup artist wearing a coal miners-esque head torch to touch up her makeup, and Luigi Mureno, one of the fashion industry’s biggest hair stylists, meticulously and individually placing each strand of hair to its designated location. Only Madonna could get Luigi to fluff her before she made a five-minute speech in a room where cameras were not allowed. It was a surreal, inspiring visual, and one that set the tone for a film that I found just as visually arresting.
Last night’s premiere was the fourth time that Madonna had sat and watched the film amongst a large audience. She screened it at three previous festivals: Venice, Toronto and London. (The ultimate perfectionist, Madonna admitted to re-editing the film between those screenings. In fact, last night’s version was the first time that she had seen the final cut, and yes, it’s now final. “Tonight is about letting go,” she joked.) The reviews from the previous screenings were mixed, and there were even reports of public booing. The film flops between two stories: One, a historical narrative about the love story between Prince Edward, son of the King of England, who is forced to abdicate the throne to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson in what is often considered the greatest love story of the 20th century and the era’s biggest scandal; and two, a tale of an abused, bored Manhattan housewife who wants kids and a thrill, and finds it by obsessing over Sotheby’s 1998 auction of Simpson’s things.
So, what was my take on the film? To be honest, I quite enjoyed it. The first thing anyone will mention is the costumes, and for good reason: They are utterly and ridiculously fabulous. Arianne Phillips, the costume designer, proved her status as a top stylist and film costumer is well deserved. I also enjoyed the cinematography, the history, even the dialogue in sections. (“The only thing I could do was dress than better than anyone else,” was one line, however, that seemed a little fishy to come out of Simpson’s mouth.) I adore that period in fashion, and there were references to Schiaparelli gowns and Cartier fine jewelry that will satiate any sartorial appetite.
Of course there were some things that I might have changed. In particular, there was the modern day character, played by Abbie Cornish, who we saw more than once inject herself with hormones and who’s list of life priorities in the film would no doubt raise a feminist’s eyebrow. Also, I was more startled than anything when Madonna wove the two narratives so literally into each other in a handful of scenes. But even here I want to make excuses for her, a woman who’s used shock and fantasy to her benefit for years. When I think of the medium that she has been most successful I think of the music video. I don’t mean that as an insult or as an attack on her cinematic efforts. I’ve always thought in many ways it’s harder to convey something within a few words and in few minutes than it is to have the opportunity to indulge in vocabulary and sweeping visuals. Madonna’s videos have consistently been the best in the business, always powerful and arresting and inspiring, which is what I think her attempted tactic was here. But in a feature film, she’s resorted to some of her tried and true antics – like wife beating, slow-motion fighting, imagined meetings, the aforementioned needle – that aren’t quite necessary, even if I appreciate why and how she incorporated them.
What is apparent in this film is that Madonna was committed to the story, so much so that the consensus at the premiere’s after party was more people cared about the historical aspect of Wallis, played superbly by Andrea Riseborough, than they did an anonymous fictional tale. She did not take the text or the task lightly, which I truly respect. Put bluntly, this was not a Swept Away scenario. (Fun fact: Cornish told me in Paris during fashion week last October that not only was Madonna a hands-on, in-touch director, she gave Cornish her own personal rings every day to wear in the film, creating a personal touch and ritual that she could draw on for inspiration and focus.) I think the audience enjoyed the film too. Patti Smith even gave it a standing ovation.
In an awkward moment during the introductions, Harvey Weinstein explained that the film alone was a great one on its own, and that any criticism applied to it was only made because of the woman who made it. If some Joe Smith had made the film and not Madonna, he rationed, it’d be a critical success. Yet Madonna, always on form, was quick to respond to Harvey. “I never want to be Joe Smith,” she smarted. And it’s true. Madonna has always been Madonna.