Madonna’s Filth and Wisdom
By Caroline Schulenburg-Khripin
Newly released to DVD Madonna’s unfortunate directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom attempts to tell the story of three young Londoners struggling to come to terms with their pasts while chasing their dreams. The resulting film drags viewers through countless clichés while Madonna attempts to explain herself as an artist through characters that seem to lifted almost directly from every art-house masterpiece from the last ten years.
Eugene Hutz, the charismatic frontman of gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello stars as A.K., a Ukrainian immigrant who earns a living as a dominatrix, punk rocker and overgrown errand-boy for a resident blind and depressed poet. A.K. has a lot of free time on his hands as dominating the meek and flabby middle-aged men of London pays well and his band obviously only works at night. He spends many an hour musing over life’s strange contradictions and mysteries from his tub, usually in the company of a bottle of vodka.
Holly Weston plays Holly, an aspiring ballet dancer who after many years of study still appears to be taking lessons. Her frustrations are understandable. Despite all of her dedication, she never goes to an audition suggesting that she has yet to figure out that prima ballerina jobs don’t just fall in one’s lap. At A.K’s recommendation, Holly decides to try her luck as a stripper. Her grace and artistry as a ballerina do not help her stripping where she finds herself struggling to be as good a pole dancer as her co-workers. Naturally, her problems are solved when she finds her true stripper identity- that of a Britney Spears-esque schoolgirl.
Juliette, played by Vicky McClure, is a pharmacist who pockets prescriptions while her boss, Sardeep is busy sniffing her jacket in the cloakroom. Despite her own sufferings as a child (possibly incest, but the ever-secretive Madonna won’t reveal) Juliette yearns to help African children. She collects change from customers until her boss yells at her for worrying only about African children when Indian children live in poverty too.
Filth and Wisdom revels in cringe-worthy stereotypes. One of A.K’s most loyal clients is a Jewish businessman who seeks to escape his fat, nagging wife by paying A.K. to dress up as a schoolmaster and smack his hands when he gets the answers to ridiculously complicated math problems incorrect. Sardeep’s nagging wife harasses him by frequently showing up at his work with their many children in tow. Another ghastly nod to cultural sensitivity comes from A.K.’s father, who is shown beating his son in several flashbacks. He is a balding man who probably fell off the back of a gypsy caravan shortly before deciding to take a crack at parenthood.
Ultimately,many forces make this movie nearly unwatchable. Madonna’s vanity forefronts her female protagonists. Holly’s turn to stripping mimics Madonna’s turn from a future in ballet to one in pop music. In Juliette, we see a beautiful but tortured soul who hopes to heal the world through philanthropy. In the end, Juliette’s sympathy for the plight of African children is a far cry from Madonna’s establishment of a Kabbalah school for children in impoverished Malawi and controversial adoptions of two Malawian children. Through A.K. Madonna reveals herself as an artist who hardened herself by selling her sexuality in part to offend her own oppressive father and in part to survive. All of these characters, feeble and cobbled together badly, are put on a stage created by Madonna in the hopes that we will understand her as she understands herself.