Swept Away

Friedrich von Hayek used to say that there was lurking just beneath the surface of socialism — and not very far beneath its surface either — a nostalgic primitivism. Since nobody’s notion of the socialist ideal has ever existed in a modern, industrialized society, the unspoken but powerful image of that ideal in the socialist mind is an Edenic tribal past when (so it is supposed) people held all things in common and no one had as yet committed the original sin of distinguishing between meum and tuum.

Hayek might have cited Swept Away — either the original version by Lina Wertmüller of 1974 or the new remake by Guy Ritchie — in support of his thesis. Though the original version was more heavily freighted with Communist theorizing, the political subtext is hardly less obvious in Mr Ritchie’s version, which stars Mrs. Ritchie (a.k.a. Madonna) in the role of the nasty capitalist dame converted to the workers’ cause (or at least to a worker) by being stranded on an island with an Italian communist fisherman. It’s the Ritchie bitch as the bitchy rich, as an unkind person might say.

Those familiar with her career will know that Madonna has never had much truck with modesty, and she is no more shy about donning the mantle of economic theory than she has been about any other kind of skimpy costume. Her version of what she calls “the laws of capitalism” is that “the proprietor of goods can set any price that he sees fit,” a principle which, however useless in the real world, at least produces an ironic resonance when it is quoted back at her by Peppe the fisherman — played by Adriano Giannini, the son of Giancarlo Giannini who played the role in Miss Wertmüller’s film — when she is literally starving and so at his mercy.

Peppe’s price is for the rich bitch to become his bitch, and she pays it rather more willingly than a strict regard for verisimilitude might allow. Remarkably, I thought, Mr. Ritchie leaves in his revised version of this parable quite a lot of what many will think of as the unacceptable primitivism of the original. True, he cuts the rape which in 1974 must still have been thought of as a reasonable way for males of the revolutionary classes to get through to over-civilized females of the boss class. But it is not exactly feminist, either, that Peppe takes her up to the point of penetrative sex by force, then induces her to say “yes,” then refuses her, insisting that she must fall in love with him. “I’m going to be your god, is that clear?”

All too clear, alas. In any case, the caveman standard of domestic relations still so far applies as to allow Peppe to knock Mrs Ritchie about and treat her as his slave. Only thus, apparently, can she learn her place in the revolutionary society of the island and call him “master,” as per instruction, serving him in stereotypically housewifely ways. Obviously, it is but a slight step from here to crawling on her knees in the sand to him, kissing his feet and begging him to be her lord as well as master. Thus is answered her comically rich-bitchy prayer on finding herself marooned: “Where is God when you need Him?”

One cannot but feel, however, that the material girl’s learning to adore this peasant ruffian is as much an instance of her husband’s nostalgia as the film’s crude politics. Mr Ritchie has a good eye and a talent for plotting — though the latter has not been much in evidence since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — but he has no understanding of character at all. Mrs Ritchie is absolutely the last woman in the world to persuade us of her idyllic contentment while living in a shack, on an otherwise deserted island, with a crude but masterful domestic abuser. She’s much more believable as the rich bitch who, if she were actually stranded with such a fellow, would soon have him kissing her feet. But then that scenario wouldn’t work as socialist romance.

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