The idea of a Madonna project that tones down its sexual content takes some getting used to. To put it in explicit terms, 2002’s Swept Away has a nipple count of jug one, far lower than the original — lower, even, than any given page of Madonna’s 1992 book, Sex.
“That’s because my husband directed it,” says Madonna.
There is “a little bit” of truth to this, confirms Ritchie, who admits that seeing his wife with another man was “a bit odd.” As to the nudity question, Ritchie says, “I don’t want to see my missus naked all over the place. Plus, I thought the film was about passion rather than tits and bush everywhere.”
The missus concurs: “We didn’t think she really underwent a transformation in the old film. It was more about sex and lust, and them desiring each other physically. It didn’t seem that there was any point to us rolling around and making out and staying naked in the movie. I didn’t mind it, but Guy didn’t want to do it, to tell you the truth.”
Madonna pauses, then adds clarification: “I’m not particularly fond of kissing strange men — contrary to popular belief.”
Said belief is considerably less pertinent than the critics’ consensus that Madonna cannot act. As she has striven to replicate the impact of her sassy 1985 film debut in Desperately Seeking Susan through missteps such as Shanghai Surprise, Body of Evidence, Four Rooms, and The Next Best Thing, her filmography has earned her so much negative equity that it has almost come to embody the “hate” component of the love-hate appeal that stokes the public’s fascination with her. The highest kudos that she has earned in the dramatic arena came from her role in the 1996 musical Evita, which brought her a Golden Globe award (but not, alas, a much-wanted Oscar nomination). Even then, one suspected that the bauble was bestowed for the plucky campaigning that won her the role and the technical chops that helped her pull it off.
Those who find merit in Madonna’s Swept Away performance will probably question their own judgment, which has by definition been refracted through the prisms of Madonna’s celebrity and her mottled cinematic past. Even the friends-and-family audience at one New York screening couldn’t help but chuckle when the film’s credits listed all the high-toned designers behind Madonna’s costumes.
Swept Away has the advantage over some of her other pictures in allowing her to play off her real-life image as — shall we say? — a demanding perfectionist. Guy Ritchie insists that his wife is “exactly the opposite” of her public image, but he understands that she carries baggage more onerous than all of Amber’s Vuitton cases. “I recognize the hurdle of people getting over the iconic status of Madonna,” Ritchie allows. “So I tried to build that factor into the character, and segue into some kind of transformation.”
Despite negative word of mouth on Swept Away. Ritchie remains upbeat. “It is what it is,” he says with a shrug. “It’s the kind of film I’d go and see — and I’m not romantic in a traditional sense.”
“I’d like it if people liked it,” ventures Madonna. “But I’m not going to slit my wrists if they don’t. Especially because it’s a labor of love between me and my husband.”
Whatever the critical consensus is on Swept Away, Madonna insists that her household will remain oblivious. “Since we finished the film we made an agreement that we weren’t going to read newspapers or magazines.” she states.
“I get my news on the Internet or whatever, just hard facts. Almost every publication has sensationalist journalism in it. I don’t want to be involved in evil tongue or gossip. Because I think it’s brought down society in many ways — it’s like a cancer. So that leaves more time for reading books. Doesn’t it?”
The idea of the raunchiest and most entertainingly evil-tongued pop icon of our time executing such a righteous volte-face may seem preposterous, but the reason behind it is as clear as the small plastic bottle that sits on the coffee table in front of her. Said item, labeled “Kabbalah Water,” provides a convenient reminder of Madonna’s much-discussed conversion to that quasi-mystical and currently voguish spin-off of Judaism.
Given her alacrity in picking bandwagons, it’s hardly surprising that Madonna’s spiritual awakening has been dismissed as nothing more than another transitory phase. Material Girl, Spiritual Girt whatever — it’s all show business, right?
Well, perhaps. But Madonna has remained an assiduous student of Kabbalah for several years now, and she continues to attend classes regularly, in both Los Angeles and London. It is a belief system dating back to the Middle Ages and deriving much of its meaning from mathematical interpretations of the Torah. Madonna, a famously lapsed Catholic, first became interested in a motivation-minded, New Age reincarnation of Kabbalah while pregnant with Lourdes. She was drawn in by one of its central precepts: restricting one’s “reactive behavior.”