When men rule, Madonna drools…
by Adam Miller
Experience has shown that there can be all kinds of reasons why a movie is “bad.” The ways in which we conceptualize a bad film inform us of how we conceive of film making itself. For example, some movies can be “ruined” by such things as bad acting, poor dialogue, sloppy direction, or a low budget. To describe a film as “ruined” implies that, were not for those particular elements, a film might have had some merit. But merit based upon what? A “core premise” perhaps?
For example, one might reasonably say that PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE was ruined by terrible acting, a tinny script, and Ed Wood’s famously limited budget. What is not critiqued in those statements is the central alien plot line: A superior race of aliens re-animates earthling corpses to frighten humans into submitting to the aliens’ super knowledge and technology. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and its many knock-offs including THE THING and ALIEN follow a similar plotline of aliens taking over human bodies. Meanwhile reanimation of the dead is firmly entrenched in no less than Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. So while the plot may seem outlandish from the scientific perspective, under the more fantastic guidelines of Hollywood it is could be made to work.
Beyond the basic plot itself, PLAN 9 seems to have its heart in the right place. Its aliens, for example, are not mindless monsters like in BODY SNATCHERS, they are sentient and their motives are revealed to be far from sinister, albeit ill-fated.
Other films, however, may be technically top-notch but still result in utter catastrophe. It is the premise, the attitude of the film itself which proves, in some way, revolting. There is no albatross that dooms these films, but rather their very ontology is bad, unpleasant, unwatchable.
One such film is the Guy Ritchie directed, Madonna starring feature, SWEPT AWAY. The film is notoriously disliked by critics—those who should implicitly be better equipped to see through a film’s disguises—but has also found little love from the public at large.
It’s bad. How bad?
By the numbers: after an abysmal gross in U.S. theaters, the UK version of the film was released directly to DVD. The reason, as if I haven’t telegraphed it far enough, is that the spirit of the film itself is corrupt.
SWEPT AWAY is a romantic drama with its heart in the wrong place.
The movie’s premise is promising enough: two beautiful people who hate each other are stranded on an island together. One is rich, the other is poor. One has been a royal bitch (guess who), the other has been an obedient serf. But despite these tensions of class and attitude, love is brewing.
The first third of the movie is spent following Madonna and her rich husband and friends on a private sea voyage around Greece. Madonna mercilessly picks on one of the deckhands, Giueseppe (who she refers to as “Pee Pee”… why? Because she’s an awful person I guess). Things come to a head when Madonna insists Pee Pee take her out in a small raft to see some undersea caves. The engine dies and the two become stranded on a deserted island. The tables turn as Pee Pee’s survival skills prove far more valuable than Madonna’s riches.
As a result, Pee Pee starts to get a little payback on Madonna’s bitchiness by forcing her into an Oath of Domesticity. He forces her to call him Master, to cook and clean for him, to rub his feet, etc. This is somewhat understandable (though it certainly deserts Pee Pee of any heroic traits). But what really pushes the movie into more grotesque territory is the fact the Madonna quickly LIKES being treated this way. At one point Pee Pee tries to rape Madonna (violently and unexpectedly) but this scene only leads to an overt sexual relationship between to the two and the flowering of their true love. Even if you give that non sequitur a pass, even more difficult to swallow is that Pee Pee continues to treat Madonna as his servant even after they have declared their love for each other. With shock and horror, one realizes, the movie is endorsing a gendered power dynamic which would make a feminist’s head spin. It’s not even post-feminist, it’s concentrated male chauvinism.
All of this posits one of the most unsatisfactory endings I have ever seen in a movie. (SPOILER) At film’s end, Madonna and Pee Pee are rescued and return to civilization where Madonna is reunited with her husband. Pee Pee nevertheless tries to get his woman back by buying her an engagement ring and leaving it for her at her hotel. Unfortunately (I guess), the letter is intercepted by Madonna’s resulting who convinces Pee Pee that Madonna has rejected his proposal. So Madonna and husband board their private helicopter, Pee Pee chases them down the runway, but is too late. Madonna flies away and Pee Pee throws the ring into the sea. The end.
In another movie, that might have been mawkish (it’s hard for me to think of a scenario where it actually would have been dramatic; this isn’t CASABLANCA). But because of how f*ed up the characters and their relationship was, the viewer can’t help but heave a sigh of relief. And I’m guessing that wasn’t the movie’s intention.
SWEPT AWAY is a well-made film about a familiar romantic story. The only problem is the attitude—the ideology—stinking behind every frame. It is, for me, a perfect example of an ontologically, even morally, flawed film. In a way, such films are good for viewers to see. They relieve us, temporarily, of the anxiety that our values are being lost in a sea of manipulated images. They reassure us that we can parse the illusion of cinema and still access a solid moral foundation. The question is, for every film like SWEPT AWAY we catch being ideologically naughty, how many other films get away with manipulating us in a far more effectual way?