Alongside ‘overrated’, the most overused and misused word in modern criticism may be ‘pretentious’. I’ve seen it applied more times than I care to count, often badly or without much thought as to what the word actually means. It’s a notion most of us are familiar with but have difficulty in verbalizing. Pretension is also entirely subjective: One person’s pretentious tosh is another’s astounding masterpiece.
The official definition of ‘pretentious’ is ‘to attempt to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed’. That’s an easy enough concept to deal with, but you’ll seldom see it applied in the same way by different people. Too often, taking the less trodden track away from populist entertainment will see you labelled as pretentious. I remember being called pretentious in high school for mentioning I went to see a foreign film at the cinema. Sometimes, and I completely understand why, viewers get frustrated with something that’s intellectually impenetrable and dismiss it as pretentious because of that.
For me, I consider something pretentious when it meets two requirements: One, that it follows the dictionary definition and tries to pretend it’s more important than it actually is, and two, when it actively sneers at the consumer for daring to question its merit. Plenty of films do this - how many times have you seen a movie where it may as well have grinded to a halt so that the director could convey their emotions on the issues of the day? I’m cool with a bit of self-indulgence. After all, cinema is essentially the perfect medium for such navel gazing. However, even I have my limits. Therefore, I thought it only fair to share with you the film that broke my patience and had me ranting about what a pretentious pile of bollocks it was for days on end. It’s not just one of the worst films I’ve ever seen: It’s easily the most pretentious.
So, I present to you, dear readers…
Yes, that Madonna.
For her second feature film as director, the iconic queen of pop decided to take on one of the most infamous scandals in the British Royal Family: The abdication of Edward VIII and his marriage to the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. This story had been told multiple times in film and television, but Madonna’s twist on the story would be to include a parallel story involving a young American woman in 1998 whose obsession with Wallis led her to discover ‘the truth’ about their love.
Co-written with Alek Keshishian (the director of the Madonna tour documentary Truth or Dare), W/E was described as something of a passion project for the star. From a purely abstract point-of-view, this seemed like an interesting meeting of worlds. If you wanted to tell a story about the smothering double-edged sword of celebrity and obsession, who better to do it than a woman who had lived that life for close to 30 years? I didn’t even mind the obvious vanity project nature of the movie. We let plenty of dull dudes make those kinds of films, so why not indulge the pop star of our age for a bit? Madonna herself is an interesting figure of cinephilia: Her acting career is actively terrible bar a couple of good performances but her music videos exhibited a strong understanding of classic film iconography and its power. What is Vogue is not a giant love letter to the golden age of Hollywood stardom? Before its release, I was on board for W/E.
And then I saw it.
From the first scene, I knew I was in for a bad ride. Scenes of domestic violence are shot like perfume ads. The dialogue was perfunctory and seemed like it had been lifted straight from Wikipedia. Basic scenes were blocked like the cinematographer had enjoyed a cocktail-heavy lunch. The parallel stories of Wallis and Wally Winthrop made no sense and it never seemed to decide what tone to settle on. Basic historical facts were screwed up too: At one point, news footage of George V’s funeral calls him ‘George III’.
In one scene, Edward, Wallis and their guests ingest laudanum then dance the night away, to the score of Pretty Vacant by the Sex Pistols. At that point, you can almost see Madonna on the couch watching Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and deciding to ‘pay homage’ to it. By that point, you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry.
All of this would usually make such a film merely a bad historical drama. We’ve all seen a few of those in our time, and most of them don’t have costume design as sumptuous as W/E. Andrea Riseborough manages to rise above the terrible material to give a great performance, and Oscar Isaac turns up in a kilt in one scene, which is one for the scrapbooks. That it is not a film without merits almost makes it worse, because your instinct is to defend the bits you like. Still, that’s not what makes it pretentious.
The moment the film spilled into inexcusable masturbation happened when Wally attended a dinner party where she wouldn’t stop talking about Wallis Simpson (it seems to be all she talks about in the film). One of the party-goers comments on she and Edward being Nazi sympathizers, and she angrily refutes that as propaganda.
It’s not propaganda.
There are photographs of the pair meeting Hitler. FBI files from the 1930s detail the pair being possible Nazi sympathizers. There is evidence that Edward visited concentration camps (although it is arguably doubtful he had any idea of the mass murders happening there). She told the American ambassador at the time that France had fallen to Nazi invasion because it was ‘internally diseased’. On top of that, Simpson was a noted racist, writing in letters to her aunt that Barbados, where she resided for several years, was populated by ‘lazy, thriving n*****s’. In a 2010 interview, Madonna claimed the Nazi sympathizer claims were ‘just the usual lynch-mob mentality that descends upon somebody who has something that lots of other people don’t have.’ Essentially, she claims the Nazi stories were made up by jealous nobodies.
Pretentious cinema believes itself to be more important and intelligent than it truly is, but it also tries to steamroll over the truth. It’s one thing to make glossy propaganda to satisfy your own fantasies; it’s quite another to do it so ineptly and by smudging away such a dark period in British history. Being pretentious enough to genuinely think you can override the undeniable truth is something even the most self-indulgent films struggle to pull off.
What’s the most pretentious film you’ve ever seen? How do you define a pretentious film? Is there a film frequently described as pretentious that you love and will ardently defend? Let us know in the comments.
(Header image from YouTube)