Exploiting our Archives: Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #5 W.E.

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Welcome, friends, to the latest installment in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0—Payola with Honor, the column where I give readers/patrons who make a one time one hundred dollar pledge to the site's Patreon page an opportunity to choose a movie I must see, and then write about. This time around, patron Todd in the Shadows choose a movie I’d been kicking around in the old cerebellum as a possible My World of Flops entry in W.E. 

It’s a vanity project from one of the most important pop artists of the past fifty years (without her, there would, for example, be no "Like a Surgeon") that posits that history can make you horny, and the right micro-niche of the past can drive you into such a frenzy of erotic longing that you’re moved to step boldly out from the suffocating confines of your loveless marriage and into the carnal embrace of a hunky Russian security guard with bedroom eyes and all the right moves between the sheets. 

The hunky Eastern European widower who sexually liberates our heavy-breathing heroine is played by a young Oscar Isaac. Along with Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, this movie was my first introduction to the brooding young actor. Needless to say, these movies made a profound impact on me, and not in a positive way (I’ve written at least three pieces on Sucker Punch), so I assumed, based on these introductory two films, that Isaac was a hammy actor who only appeared in unforgettably terrible, woefully misguided melodramas opposite Abbie Cornish. 

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Needless to say, that did not turn out to be the case. Isaac has subsequently emerged as one of the most important and charismatic actors of his generation, with attention-grabbing performances in motion pictures like Inside Llewyn Davis, The Last Jedi, The Force Awakens, Ex Machina, Drive and A Most Violent Year. Isaac is the internet’s boyfriend, so much so that when a picture of him wearing an Ayn Rand tee shirt surfaced minor hysteria freaked out as hopeless fanboys and fangirls wondered if they’d thrown their love and devotion behind someone with the political beliefs of that annoying kid who kept trying to get you to come to Libertarian Club sophomore year. 

Isaac was destined for greatness. But you wouldn’t know it from his performance in W.E. He’d quickly emerge as a dramatic actor of real range and depth but in co-writer-director Madonna’s silly (yes, that Madonna) anglophile historical romance he only has room to deliver a single note of smoldering proletarian sexiness. 

Madonna’s movie casts Isaac as a hokey Harlequin hunk, a lusty yet tender and virile security guard who shows our heroine that there are men who will cherish her like the rare jewel she is and not toss her cavalierly away when not physically, verbally and emotionally abusing her, like her handsome, successful yet cruel psychiatrist husband. 

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W.E reminded me throughout of the similarly histrionic melodramas of Tyler Perry. As in the morality plays of Perry, the choice heroine Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) faces is less between  a sympathetic romantic lead and a less sympathetic rival but rather between good and evil in their starkest, most extreme forms. 

This dichotomy between earthy angels and sinister devils even plays out along class lines the way it does in Perry’s films. Though we learn that Evgeni (Isaac) is a piano-playing Russian intellectual widower slumming as a security guard, we know him only as a sinewy working man who guards the Sotheby’s auction where Wally becomes erotically obsessed with the story of Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced divorcee whose romantic entanglement with King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) caused him to abdicate the throne in order to be with her. 

Evgeni oozes sex as well as tenderness and physical longing, unlike Wally's demonic shrink husband William Winthrop (Richard Coyle), who insists that she quit her job so she can pump out babies, then refuses to impregnate her, or even have sex with her, instead saying things like “You couldn’t give me a kid if I wanted one you stupid fucking cunt.”

Isaac clearly senses how fucked he is to be associated forever with  W.E.

Isaac clearly senses how fucked he is to be associated forever with W.E.

It’s as if, immediately after their wedding, William took his bride aside and confessed, “Look, I’m not the Prince Charming I appear to be. I’m actually an emotionally and physically abusive monster and sociopath who will try to destroy you. But, you know, for better or worse, right!?! I guess you're stuck with me!” 

The bored and sexually unfulfilled Wally finds herself increasingly obsessed with an auction for the personal items, particularly letters, between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, sassy American firebrand Wallis Simpson and her worshipful husband King Edward VIII. 

W.E’s bifurcated structure alternates between contemporary scenes of modern-day Wally experiencing a steamy sexual awakening at the rough but loving hands of Evgeni while sorting through the personal effects of Wallis and her beau, relics of an epic bygone love that serve as a powerful aphrodisiac, and scenes of Wallis wooing and winning her high-born soul mate, much to the horror and judgment of respectable people, particularly the Royal Family. 

These two tales of loves that defy the rules and propriety blur into each other and overlap in dopey fantasy sequences where Wallis acts as a romantic Obi-Wan Kenobi, mentoring her ripe and ready protege in the ways of true love and true lust in ways that transcends the dreary bounds of time and death. 

Wally and Wallis

Wally and Wallis

W.E. opens with a deluge of artless exposition from monotone newscasters calling the bond between Wallis and Edward, “the greatest love story of the 20th century, the king who gave up his throne for the woman he loved.” 

From the very beginning, W.E is framing its love story as pure cliche, a fairytale about an American commoner so unbelievably charismatic and desirable that she caused a King to give it all up just to be with her. 

In that clumsy introductory outpouring of information we learn that Wallis was “not distinguished by great beauty, money or class” but nevertheless possessed that ineffable something that catapulted her into the annals of romantic, as well as royal history. In that respect, she’s not terribly dissimilar from the film’s cowriter-director, who somewhat famously was not born a great beauty, nor a naturally talented singer or actress but through hard work, determination, charisma and talent has emerged as one of the most important, successful and influential musicians of all time. 

W.E is literally about an American woman getting inspired and turned on by another woman’s example so it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to see autobiographical elements in it. After all, there was a time when Madonna was an American commoner married to Guy Ritchie, the beer-sodden Prince of Lad Cinema. Was that the same as marrying a proper royal, or even a good filmmaker? No, it was not. 

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Madonna clearly fell in love with Simpson’s story, and that blinded her to its many shortcomings. W.E.’s treatment of Simpson is an example of what I like to call the “Lisa’s Red Dress Effect” after the many overcompensating lines in The Room about how sexy femme fatale Lisa looks in her red dress. 

The Lisa’s Red Dress Effect is strong with Simpson. We are continually told, and then told again, and then told a third time what a sexy, irresistible and rebellious life-lover Simpson is, and how we should hold her in the same high regard as modern-day Wally and the filmmakers do. She’s hyped to such an absurd degree that it would seemingly be impossible for any mere mortal to live up to the goddess of the script, who is half Dorothy Parker and half Helen of Troy.

The movie sure doesn’t feel too bad about Wallis dumping her loving second husband for a much bigger fish. True, at no point in the film does Simpson’s second husband come right out and say, “My name is Chuck, and I like to get cucked. I’ma sit right back and watch wifey get fucked!” but his body language and general demeanor convey those sentiments strongly. 

As Simpson, Andrea Riseborough is perfectly fine, but she’s never anywhere near as magnetic or earth-shattering as she’s supposed to be. How powerful is her lust for life? It’s so powerful that at one point Wallis and good old Eddy decide to wake up some sleepy revelers with a little Benzedrine in their champagne and Wallis favors the assembled to a kooky flapper dance alongside a bald black woman to the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.” 

Yes, those Sex Pistols. The ones from the 1970s. That makes Wallis rocking out to “Pretty Vacant” audaciously anachronistic in a way that obnoxiously calls attention to itself without actually saying anything. 

The whiteness! It's blinding!

The whiteness! It's blinding!

Is W.E saying that Wallis and Edward are the real punks for giving the middle finger to a world that insisted that they give up everything for the sake of true love? Or is it saying that its endlessly romanticized lovers are the vacant ones, debauched libertines concerned only with their own thrills and satisfaction?

I dunno. Maybe? This is not a film of ideas. It is a film of pretty, empty images. 

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This feels less like history come to life than a historical version of Red Shoe Diaries, complete with the faintly lobotomized, glossy magazine sensuality of the 50 Shades of Grey series and acting that’s music video-broad in ways that make the movie feel like a perfume ad that got poisoned by ambition and morphed into a shapeless, empty two hours of style divorced from substance, useless beauty removed from anything resembling social commentary. 

W.E keeps insisting that the star-crossed passion of its titular romantics constitutes the greatest love of the twentieth century. In actuality, it’s really just the most basic. 

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