The temptation to apply layers of meaning to the story Madonna tells in her new film, the cryptically titled W.E., is irresistible.
The pop superstar's second feature film as a director, W.E. is a tale of two women, two cultures, and two eras. Wallis Simpson was a real-life American socialite of the 1930s who was vilified for falling in love with England's King Edward VIII; he abdicated the throne to marry the divorcée. Madonna's movie attempts to reclaim Wallis's image by turning a polarizing woman often perceived as a villain into a sympathetic figure.
And then there's Wally Winthrop, the other woman — this one fictional — in New York City in the late 1990s, at a time when Simpson's jewels and other possessions were being auctioned off for charity. Trapped in an abusive marriage that appeared to be fairy-tale perfect, Wally obsesses over Wallis, her bygone namesake, and turns to her for support.
Like Madonna's best videos and music, W.E. is a pastiche of eras past and present, with a heavy emphasis on style, fashion, and design. Her presence is clearly felt. More oblique is the connection to Madonna's own life. The movie depicts Wallis as a dramatically different person than she was in her private, tortured reality. Wally's fantasy facade, concealing a darker truth, invites comparison to Madonna's now-dissolved marriage to filmmaker Guy Ritchie and raises the question of whether Madonna feels as vilified as Wallis.
"I was intrigued," Madonna says of the royals. She had a vague awareness of Wallis but only really got to know her story when she moved to England. "Like Wallis Simpson, I felt like an outsider. I thought, Life is so different here, and I'm used to being a New Yorker, and I have to learn how to drive on the other side of the road. Suddenly, I found myself living out in an English country house and trying to find my way in this world, so I decided to really take it on and do research and find out about English history and learn about the royal family."
Madonna read every book she could find about Simpson and her time. She became obsessed with the tragic notion that a woman then was only as good as the man she would marry. "The idea of making a choice for love wasn't really part of their world," says Madonna. "The fact that they eventually found each other and were willing to jump into this fishbowl of scandal and rile people up, even though Wallis knew, as she says in the film, that she would become the most hated woman in the world" — that's what captivated Madonna.
While she doesn't claim the title "most hated" for herself, she feels a connection to Simpson. "I mean, I certainly don't engage [with the media] as much as I did," she says. "When people are writing about you in the beginning and they're saying nice things, you're like, 'Oh!' You feel this lift of energy. Then they say bad things, and of course, you're affected by that too."
Madonna spent a lot of time caring about the bad, but she claims to have moved on. "I don't really dwell on it anymore. I used to be kind of fixated on it and think, It's not fair, it's not fair, it's not fair, but it is what it is, and I just have to get on with my life."
But Madonna's passion for this topic belies that resolute attitude: "If you are threatened by me as a female or you think I'm doing too much or saying too much or being too much of a provocateur, then no matter how great of a song I write or how amazing of a film I make, you're not going to allow yourself to enjoy it, because you're going to be too entrenched in being angry with me or putting me in my place or punishing me."