Madonna Premieres W.E. at the Venice Film Festival

A storm of controversy washed into the placid canals of Venice when film critics and aficionados caught the first screening of Madonna’s semi-period W.E.. Well, not so much controversy as a collective ugh. In fact, “howler” seems to be the word most used here at the Venice Film Festival.

The film, written and directed by Madonna, follows the life of Wallis Simpson, the American-socialite-turned-British-duchess who, in 1937, wed King Edward VIII in a shocking and scandalous marriage that led to his abdication of the throne. To Madge’s credit, the film isn’t a biopic that simply reconstructs the sequence of events. Instead, it tells the royal love story through the modern-day eyes of Wally Winthrop, played by Abbie Cornish, who develops an obsession with the Duchess of Windsor. Somewhere in the mix is the admirable message that a woman must follow her heart, strive for her independence, forge her own destiny—a very Madonna subject indeed.

“I was completely and utterly swept up in trying to understand the reason why King Edward VIII would give up the throne for the woman he loved. I wanted to get to the bottom of it, I wanted to investigate it, I wanted to find out why,” Madonna explained during a press conference (when she wasn’t loathing hydrangeas).

Madonna went on to say her former husbands Guy Ritchie and Sean Penn have been supportive and even helpful with the project, but we doubt Madonna takes lessons from anyone—and it shows. The back-and-forth plot, coupled with Madonna’s rookie camerawork, made the audience dizzy with confusion and laughing in inappropriate places.

Even so, the film shines in its portrayal of breathtaking opulence, and the costumes—reproductions of archival pieces from Vionnet and other houses—are flawless. As Madonna explained: “The world Wallis found herself in was a world of luxury and beauty and decadence, and I wanted to reflect that world visually in my film.”

The Weinstein Company will release the film December 9 in New York and Los Angeles, with wide distribution in mid-January.

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