Filth and Wisdom: Madonna as Writer-Director

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Despite her success as a pop star and fashion icon for 25 years, Madonna can’t shake her reputation for being an almost complete bust when it comes to films. Outside of her well-regarded appearances in “Desperately Seeking Susan” and the documentary “Truth or Dare,” where she simply played herself, her cinematic resume is a litany of clunkers like “Shanghai Surprise,” “Swept Away,” and “Who’s That Girl.”

“Filth and Wisdom,” which she co-wrote and directed, would not do much to enhance her filmic credentials.

But unlike some of her outright disasters, at least this comedy-drama about a group of struggling young London friends has enough energy and rough edges to remain interesting despite that fact that it’s a pretentious, undisciplined mess.

“Filth and Wisdom” tells interlocking stories, tracing the misadventures of three London friends and roommates trying to find their way in the adult world. Ukrainian immigrant A.K. (Eugene Hutz, lead singer of the acclaimed gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello) splits his time working as some sort of fetishist by day and then performing with his band in clubs at night. Holly (Holly Weston) is a ballerina disillusioned with her career choice who decides, oddly, to audition as a dancer at a gentlemen’s club. And Juliette (Vicky McClure) works at a pharmacy but dreams of moving to Africa to help starving children.

While these three young people stumble around to find happiness, their lives collide with others. A.K. spends time with Christopher Flynn (Richard E. Grant), a celebrated writer and philosopher whose blindness is driving him to depression. Despite her initial misgivings about becoming a pole dancer, Holly bonds with Francine (Francesca Kingdon), an experienced exotic dancer who takes Holly under her wing. And Juliette must contend with a married boss (Inder Manocha) who secretly pines for her.

Madonna’s feature directing debut plays like an amalgam of Jean-Luc Godard’ freewheeling early films, which captured youth in all its unbridled glory, and Harmony Korine’ surreal examinations of fringe characters operating outside the bounds of conventional society. That’ an intriguing mixture, and at times “Filth and Wisdom” possesses an odd beauty as the actors’ natural charisma overcomes the forced scenarios Madonna and her co-writer Dan Cadan have set into motion.

What keeps “Filth and Wisdom” from being more fun than it could be, though, is Madonna’s penchant for having her characters do outlandish things for very little purpose. For most of the 1980s and early 1990s, her music videos set the gold standard for calculated outrageousness, often to brilliant effect, but too frequently “Filth and Wisdom” doesn’t so much tell a story as it dives headlong from one taboo topic to another. A.K.s scenes with his fetish customers push easy buttons as he dresses in different costumes and engages in S&M, but there seems to be no greater point beyond the fact that Madonnas pleased with herself for doing it. Likewise, Holly’s adventures in pole dancing are perhaps meant to be a commentary on feminist self-awareness, but the plot development isnt explored shrewdly. And Juliettes bosss kinky obsession with her, including sniffing her coat longingly, borders on camp.

With many in the cast relative unknowns, it’s hard to gauge Madonna’s skill with actors, although as a live performer she’s famous for her loving but demanding treatment of her backup dancers. Interestingly, it’s neophyte actor Eugene Hutz who gives the strongest performance. A magnetic band leader, Hutz is just as dynamic a thespian, lending A.K. a sexy, roguish, whacked-out quality that makes him both faintly ridiculous and the life of the party.

Unfortunately, A.K. is also given to silly pseudo-profound monologues delivered directly to the camera, but at least Hutz’s clownish elocution suggests to the audience that the character (or maybe just Hutz) doesnt entirely take the rubbish seriously.

On the other side of the spectrum, Richard E. Grant, the films most veteran actor, is almost embarrassing. Playing a melancholy gay writer, Grant sports an Albert Einstein hairdo and overdoes the character’s foppishness. It’s a role made up entirely of tics and gimmicks, and Grant fails to apply his usual self-mocking wit to the part, making one wonder whether Madonna encouraged the theatrics or was unable to rein Grant in.

Madonnas career has been marked by a feverish need for constant reinvention, and while that chameleon quality has kept her from falling into ruts, it’s sometimes caused her to struggle to find her bearings in artistic disciplines that don’t play to her strengths. “Filth and Wisdom” can be seen as such an exercise as she tries to become acquainted with the rigors of narrative filmmaking. On the whole, her artsy interludes, calculated shocks and improvisational digressions have their charm but don’t add up to a fully enjoyable experience.

What will be interesting, if she decides to take another crack at directing, will be to see whether “Filth and Wisdom” was just an awkward first step on the path to a fruitful new calling or the first in a series of mediocre vanity projects.

Cast

Eugene Hutz (A.K.)
Holly Weston (Holly)
Vicky McClure (Juliette)
Richard E. Grant (Christopher Flynn)
Inder Manocha (Sardeep)
Francesca Kingdon (Francine)

Credits

IFC Films release.
Production Company: Semtex Films
Producer: Nicola Doring
Executive producer: Madonna
Director: Madonna
Screenplay: Madonna and Dan Cadan
Cinematography: Tim Maurice Jones
Editor: Russell Icke
Production design: Gideon Ponte

Running time: 84 minutes