What's happened to Madonna's ability to provoke us?
Once one of the most fascinating, divisive and inflammatory artists on the pop culture landscape, the once and future Material Girl came to the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday with the film she directed, "W.E.," and caused a little fuss.
But only a little. In fact, her shiny film dealing in fast-and-loose fashion with the relationship between Wallis Simpson and Prince Edward didn't cause anywhere near as much controversy as it did when it screened at the recent Venice Film Festival and drew reviews remarkable for their vitriol.
And while her appearances drew crows and her film got a standing ovation, there was little of the pandemonium that might once have been expected.
The crowd at a noon press conference, where hundreds of reporters had fought to get in to panels for "The Ides of March," "Moneyball" and "The Descendants," was barely more than 100 people.
The press and industry festivalgoers who came to the Scotiabank multiplex to see a 9:15 a.m. screening of the film were nowhere near as numerous as the ones who filled every seat at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 15 minutes later for Steve McQueen's "Shame."
The fans who gathered around Roy Thomson Hall to catch sight of the singer/actress/director were enthusiastic, but bigger crowds had shown up for U2 and George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
And while the large theater was mostly full, it did contain more empty seats than at many previous galas.
Maybe Madonna's lost a little of her mojo – or maybe those scathing reviews out of Venice worked to keep some people away from "W.E.," which stars Andrea Riseborough (right) as the divorcee for whom the British King abdicated his throne, and Abbie Cornish as a modern American woman who becomes obsessed with Simpson.
Before the screening, conversations in Roy Thomson Hall fell into two categories: there were the people who hadn't seen the film and were wondering if they'd be pleasantly surprised that it wasn't as bad as they'd heard, and ones who'd seen it and were arguing about whether it was a lost cause or could be saved by judicious editing.
Afterwards, reaction seemed muted. Some thought it was as risible as advertised, some thought it wasn't all that bad, some loved it. But there wasn't much arguing, and even the Twitterverse was notably quiet as more tweets talked about her outfit ("black dress with sheer overlay") than her film.
I'd argue that the film is something of a fascinating mess – though for the most part, I'd lean toward the mess part of that equation.
"W.E.," which shifts frequently between past and present (or, more accurately, between the 1930s and the 1990s), seems to be in love with the idea that by focusing on pretty surfaces it's saying something about culture and celebrity and success. Shot and scored like a high-fashion lingerie commercial, it's far more about artifacts than ideas: when Wallis and Edward have a discussion about socialism and the lower classes, the director focuses more on her mixology ("one olive or two?") than her ideology.
Shiny, frothy and overheated, the movie fetishizes cigarettes and black lingerie and expensive baubles; when it tries near the end to touch the audience with an emotional note or two, I found myself too benumbed to care.
Just because "W.E." is glittering claptrap doesn't mean it's without its fascinations – one of which was the fact that one year and three days ago, another movie screened in the same hall featuring a climactic sequence in which a member of the 1930s British royal family delivered a radio address to the accompaniment of rousing orchestral music.
In both cases, shots of the royal delivering his speech were intercut with scenes of people listening to the speech; in both cases, the music built to a crescendo, the camera closed in on the guy delivering the eloquent address, and the whole thing worked up to an emotional climax of sorts.
The difference: last year, that scene in "The King's Speech" was greeted by the Roy Thomson Hall crowd with a rousing ovation even before the movie ended. This year, any "W.E." audience inclination to applaud King Edward's abdication speech was cut short by the way Madonna ends the sequence: by jumping forward 60 years to the moment when a Sotheby's auctioneer slams down his gavel and shouts, "Four hundred thousand dollars!" as he auctions off the desk at which Edward sat.
And there's something problematic about the frequently-cited scene in which Edward spikes his pals' champagne with benzedrine, and Wallis dances while the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" blares on the soundtrack. I mean, using that song could be seen as an indictment of foolish frippery across the decades, if only the film hadn't spent the bulk of its running time so assiduously celebrating foolish frippery.
"It's very much a movie about objects," said Madonna at the afternoon press conference.
And that's kind of a problem, since most of us prefer our movies to be about people.
(Premiere photos by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)