Even if you had no idea who directed Filth and Wisdom, you could easily deduce it. Gritty, floodlit shots set in lower-class London? Check. The overarching message that sexuality is a good thing, and that even those who sell their bodies for money deserve respect? Double check. A strange homage to Britney Spears in a schoolgirl’s outfit? Oh, it’s in there. This smacks of the sensibility of one Madonna Louise Ciccone.
Filth and Wisdom, which opens stateside tomorrow, is Madonna’s directorial debut. The brisk 81-minute drama was expanded from a short film she began making last year (one insider says she “fell so in love with the characters that she just had to keep filming them”). It’s a trademark Madonna production through and through—heavy-handed, unsubtle, full of leather—but unlike her spectacular arena shows, which drip with a sultry, well-honeyed camp, Filth and Wisdom is unfocused and amateurish. It feels unfinished, closer to a senior film thesis than a box-office-ready theatrical release. In her music, Madonna’s self-obsession is the necessary fuel. It’s all about her: her sex drive, her broken heart, her need to get up and dance. Filmmakers need to exhibit a little less self-indulgence and a little more generosity, which has never been Madge’s thing. It shows.
Madonna needed to make a truly excellent film right now. Yesterday her split from filmmaker Guy Ritchie became public, providing her a chance to step out from under his ever-diminishing directorial shadow. His latest heist flick, RocknRolla, was roundly panned, providing Madonna a window of opportunity to overtake him, and—in her hundredth act of reinvention—cast herself as an even better director than her ex.
Unfortunately, Filth and Wisdom does not seize the day. The story is both a string of clichés and an homage to Madonna’s early life navigating the streets of Manhattan. It stars Eugene Hutz, lead singer of New York-based Balkan punk band Gogol Bordello and Madge’s Ukrainian muse—they first sang together during 2007’s Live Earth concert, where he joined M. on stage for a rousing gypsy rendition of “La Isla Bonita.”
Hutz plays A.K., the frontman of a band called, yes, Gogol Bordello, who earns money on the side as a male dominator. He’s in love with his flatmate Holly (Holly Weston), a ballerina who takes up stripping and is taught to work the pole by a saucy brunette veteran. The third resident of the flat, Juliette (Vicky McClure), was abused by her doctor father, and now steals pills from the pharmacy where she works. She’s also obsessed with starving orphans in Africa (sound familiar?). Holly often dresses as a schoolgirl to help A.K. with his work, and ends up dancing to “Hit Me Baby One More Time” at the strip club in pigtails.
Filmmakers need to exhibit a little less self-indulgence and a little more generosity, which has never been Madge’s thing.
The three live above a blind poet (Richard E. Grant), who cries as he caresses the books he could once see. But don’t worry, in the end there’s a big party, and he gets a Braille typewriter to reignite his passions.
The dialogue is as ham-handed as the plot. Madonna, who co-wrote the script, has never been one for vagueness (see: Human Nature). From Hutz’s opening monologue, in which he stares awkwardly into the camera, the viewer is bashed over the head with the message: “Filth and wisdom—they are two sides of the same coin,” he says with an accent close enough to Borat’s to provoke unintended giggles. “To get to heaven, you have to go to hell first.”
Essentially, you cannot become a good person without having been a bad one. It’s a convenient theory for Madonna, who’s been making up for years of leather cone bras and smut books with a quaint existence in the English countryside as a children’s book author.
It’s not all awful. The cinematography is often beautiful, and the soundtrack, which is essentially a Gogol Bordello album played from beginning to end, is lively, angry, and passionate. Hutz is so committed to his role as a foul-mouthed bohemian sex worker that he charms his way through admirably. And the film’s conclusion, a bow so neat it’s completely unbelievable, provokes a strange sense of satisfaction.
In other words, it’s classic Madonna. Nothing she ever does will be a total failure. She’s made countless missteps yet always seems to emerge from the flames of her own wreckage unscathed. She’ll emerge from this embarrassment as she will from her divorce: scrubbed clean and ready to make the next move. We already know she’s moved on to A-Rod in the romance department. Let us just hope she moves away from film in the creative one.