Madonna: Swept Away

Does this film have any value?

I must address Swept Away (2002), one of the bigger bombs of Madonna filmography and a flat-out foolish film. (That’s saying a lot: it’s less watchable than The Next Best Thing and Body of Evidence.)

After marrying British director Guy Ritchie in 2000, Madonna decided to collaborate with her hubby to remake the 1974 Italian film Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, a feverish satire filled with sex and violence, written and directed by Lina Wertmüller — the first woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Directing (for her 1975 film Seven Beauties.)

While yachting on the Mediterranean with friends, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), a self-involved socialite, becomes stranded on an island with a self-righteous Marxist deckhand named Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), whom she initially treats poorly. On the island, the tables turn: Gennarino slaps, dominates, and commands Raffaella, and she soon submits to his sexual needs, happily washing his underwear in one scene. Only then does he start to fall in love with her. After their rescue, the two lovers part and resume their respective roles in the capitalist system Wertmüller seems to reject.

The film was well-received by art-house audiences — it’s visually stunning — but many critics like Pauline Kael objected to Swept Away’s brazen misogyny and were outraged by the violence Gennarino inflicts on Raffaella. I grudgingly saw Wertmüller’s picture — and did not care for it, though it was more tolerable than its remake — and can safely say it’s anti-feminist: on the island, in their “natural habitat,” woman is subservient to man and social order is restored. Anthony Kaufman, writing for the Village Voice, called the picture “possibly the most outrageously misogynist film ever made by a woman.”

That’s the source material with which Guy Ritchie was working.

Swept Away, with its cult following, aesthetic appeal, and thematic problems, was a perfect film to update. (And on paper, Madonna — a woman who is sexual, ambitious, aggressive, and smart — seems to be a decent choice for the female lead.) Instead, Ritchie stuck to the narrative, toned down some of the cringeworthy misogyny, excised most of the interesting political banter, and made the characters — Madonna’s whiny Amber and Adriano Giannini’s befuddled Giuseppe — completely one-dimensional and unlikable.

The feeling you get seven minutes into “Swept Away.”

The film was a critical and box-office failure. It made just over a half-million dollars, and went straight to video in Ritchie’s native UK.

Let’s get this out of the way: Madonna’s acting is terrible. It’s as if Madge, completely self-aware, is doing her best impression of a rich bitch on SNL. Her body — her entire persona — seems to stiffen onscreen, which is an unusual reaction for someone who spends so much time in front of a camera. Madonna being out of her element on the silver screen is not a fresh criticism, nor is it completely accurate. She dazzled in Desperately Seeking Susan, Evita, and to some extent, A League of Their Own— all of which had built-in performances (whether singing or dancing) that allowed Madonna to display her strengths as an entertainer. The most astute comment I’ve read about Madonna’s acting comes from Stephen Holden in his review of The Next Best Thing (2000) for the New York Times:

Something happens to Madonna when she stops singing, dancing and posing and is forced to play a screen character who speaks in plain English. The extraordinary drive that made her a world-famous entertainer becomes stifled, and the personality that wafts off the screen is a curt, cool cookie who, even in misty-eyed moments, conveys traces of a sour self-absorption.
Madonna, snooty and stiff, in “Swept Away.”

Despite her lackluster performance, Madonna is not the reason Swept Away tanked. The story was boring, the dialogue stale, and the directing lazy. It deserves its five percent score on RottenTomatoes.com, which aggregates reviews.

In an interview with the Oxford Union when the film was released, Ritchie commented on its terrible reception. “The idea was that the wife and I would make some sassy little art movie, but we got the shit kicked out of us,” he said. “It must be the first film to make front page news with a review. I think 21 papers in America ran a story on how appalling it was…But I’ve got to say I still think it’s a good film. I’m left shaking my head.”

I’m left shaking my head, Guy.

Skip this one.