We all like to gripe about Madonna as an actress. Her film performances, save for Desperately Seeking Susan, are generally wooden, critically damned, and, unpopular to boot. But you gotta say this for my girl; she’s like a dog with an acting bone. And even given her poor acting skills, it appears that our delight in trashing Madge is less about a dedication to the craft than a desire to see her fail. There are certainly equally bad or worse actors whom we are happy to watch in film after film — Meg Ryan, for one. But Madonna’s so resilient, so long in the tooth career-wise, and so damn good at everything else she does, it seems to make us feel better seeing her stumble from time to time.
The good news is that, in her husband Guy Ritchie’s so-called “romantic comedy,” Swept Away, a remake of Lina Wertmuller’s 1974 original, Madonna doesn’t fall flat on her face. She doesn’t even really stumble, only makes a misstep here and there. It is her best acting to date. Unfortunately, her hard work is essentially wasted in the film, which in the end is hardly “romantic,” not a “comedy,” and downright nasty to women.
Madonna plays Amber Leighton, a jet-setting, New York City-based, mega-rich mega-bitch. Amber and her husband Anthony (Bruce Greenwood), along with a few of their cronies, have popped over to Greece for a leisurely cruise to Italy. As she establishes immediately upon seeing the sprawling yacht on which they will vacation, nothing is ever good enough for Amber. She snaps at Anthony that she didn’t fly to “wherever the fuck we are” to spend her time on a decrepit old boat with a “fucking chimney.” Amber is a shrew, and spends all her time and energy making the life of everyone around her miserable.
Most of her vitriol, however, is reserved for the crew of the yacht, and especially for the fisherman turned servant for the trip, Guiseppe (Adriano Giannini, son of Giancarlo Giannini, who played the same role in Wertmuller’s version). She calls him “Peepee” (instead of his nickname Pepe) or Nature Boy, and tells him, variously, that he’s an “idiot,” an “imbecile,” and a “hairy black monkey.” Ouch, she’s so callous, so cruel and shallow.
Yet, between idlers and crew, and pointedly between Amber and Guiseppe, lies the film’s commentary regarding class relations. While pedaling on her stationary bike on deck, Amber waxes on about the superiority of capitalism, in which, she lectures, “the owner, whoever he or she may be, may set the price of her good at whatever level she chooses, regardless of any moral or ethical concerns.” It’s an old critique of greed and corruption, but one made fresh in light of all the CEO skullduggery and CFO book-cooking currently coming out of corporate America.
To lay on the critique a little thicker, Todd (Michael Beattie), one of Anthony’s rich buddies, goes on and on about the many advantages of chemicals, most directly pesticides and fertilizers, then asks Guiseppe how chemicals have improved his life. Pepe observes that chemicals poison the environment, and sacrifice sustainability for ease. Throughout this first section, Swept Away muses on avarice, the privileges of wealth, and class tensions.
But we all know what’s coming. It gives nothing away to say that, because of all her bitchery and torment of Guiseppe, Amber must learn the error of her ways by falling desperately in love with the poor fisherman. Would someone please put this hackneyed storyline out to pasture? Fucking the help, much less falling in love with him and thus effecting one’s own social and moral transformation is so passé. And it does nothing to address entrenched class exploitation and oppression, but merely tries to wish it away by asserting that rich people aren’t so bad, and we all can just get along.
Amber’s transformation begins when she and Pepe wash up on a deserted island. Realizing she must now rely on him, that their roles have reversed, Pepe decides it’s payback time, and in spades. He torments and abuses Amber to an extent that far exceeds her own abuse of him on board. Pepe demands Amber call him “Master,” that she scrub his clothes, prepare the food he has caught, and even dance for his entertainment. When she talks back, he hits her or kicks her to the ground. When she finally becomes so frustrated by his physical and verbal assaults that she stands up to him, Pepe chases her down the beach, threatens to (and almost does) rape her, and leaves her humiliated and bare-assed, crying in the sand.
After this, Amber realizes she loves Pepe, goes groveling back and literally kisses his feet in profession of her love. What Swept Away calls love, I would call the usual terror and degradation that keeps battered women in dangerous relationships.
Not to psychoanalyze the relationship of Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie, but it is somewhat spooky that since they’ve been together, Madonna has increasingly participated in eroticized spectacles of violence. She did it in her “Drowned World” tour; in The Star, the short Ritchie produced for bmw.com and in which Madonna starred; in Ritchie’s video for “What it feels like for a girl”; and now here in Swept Away. Gone are the days of her sexual excess and challenges to conventional morality. In recent interviews, both Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie have been talking about how they decided to tone down the lustful and prurient aspects of Wertmuller’s film in favor of a focus on personal conversion and “love.”
The October 2002 Vanity Fair, for instance, features Madonna as cover girl and interviews with both Mr. and Mrs. inside. On the relative chastity of Swept Away, Mr. says: “I don’t want to see my missus naked all over the place. Plus, I thought that the film was about passion rather than tits and bush everywhere.” His version features less passion than violence against a woman. It’s strange that while he doesn’t want viewers ogling his wife’s ta-tas, Ritchie is perfectly happy to let us watch her get smacked around for about an hour.