Silver Screen: Fifty Shades of Grey 1/2*
In life, but especially in romance, context is everything. Flirtation is a delicate dance around impropriety. To make a pass at someone, to come on to someone— even the language is aggressive, invasive. What separates a suave Romeo placing his hand on your back as you walk through a door from some handsy cad who can’t keep his fumbling mitts to himself? Often the distinction hinges on whether or not the owner of said back wants it to happen. It’s a narrow gap between thoughtfulness and obsession, boldness and creepiness.
If Fifty Shades of Grey serves no other purpose, it inadvertently raises these interesting questions. And Fifty Shades of Grey serves no other purpose.
By now the brief history of this pop-culture fad is plenty familiar: Amateur scribe E.L. James posted some bondage-themed Twilight fan fiction to a website. When it proved to be a surprise hit, a savvy publisher urged James to change the copyrighted names and particulars (that is, ix-nay on the ampires-vay) and released the torrid bean-flicking fantasies as a trilogy of romance novels.
The story is bracingly simple. Virginal, subtly glamorized audience surrogate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is at the tail end of her college days when she catches the eye of billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a secret bondage fetishist who urges her to be his object of debasement. While she considers his formal offer, he plies her with luxuries and gives her little tastes of the deviant sexuality he enjoys. She thinks about it. The end.
Sounds straightforward enough, yet the film is dissatisfying on almost every level, save for its pretty people and Williams-Sonoma catalogue displays of wealth.
To begin with, Fifty Shades of Grey is startlingly square. It cajoles the audience into curiosity over BDSM sex, then shames them for it. Grey’s predilections are pathologized; he was statutorily initiated into slap-and-tickle at the tender age of fifteen by one of his mother’s much-older friends, this after being born to an abusive crack whore who put him up for adoption. Now he rejects significant human connection and never smiles.
As for the kink? It’s not that kinky. For all its promised naughtiness, Fifty Shades of Grey doles out some blindfolds and handcuffs, a bit of spanking, and a flogging so light it wouldn’t wake a cat from a nap. The film is far more focused on the elaborate sexual contract Grey wants Ana to sign, so he has her full written consent to take her into his Red Room of Pain. I don’t know much about BDSM, but incorporating paperwork into sex seems like, as the French would say, “un petite boner killer.”
Far more disturbing, though, is that Ana doesn’t seem interested in participating. She’s intrigued by Christian because he’s hunky and buys her expensive things, but she also wants him to cease pursing his own pleasure for her edification. That makes her shallow and small-minded, although she’s a sterling example of humanity when compared to a guy who secretly follows his girlfriend around the country, keeping her separated from her friends and family so that he can get her to sign a contract saying he controls every aspect of her life.
I’m no prude. Those who enjoy BDSM should clamp and pinch to their crotch’s content. But why not a fantasy about a woman who is empowered by the sex she enjoys, rather than one about an empty-headed cipher who will endure a particular amount of unpleasantness in exchange for material comfort and the possibility of a traditional relationship?
Fifty Shades of Grey’s subtext is troubling. The text itself is almost nonexistent. What little drama there is, specifically the identity and motivations of Christian’s own Mrs. Robinson as well as a stupefyingly empty tangent about Ana’s roommate hooking up with Christian’s easygoing brother, would barely fill one movie. Presumably these unexplored storylines will be stretched out across a trilogy in what may be the film’s most painful contortion.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson isn’t able to make any sense of the material, but she does a fair job of conveying a kind of tactile eroticism. Her camera hones in on Christian’s predatory smile, Dakota Johnson’s bite-swollen lip, her delicate hands nervously trembling or his knuckles whitening as he grips the arms of a chair. It’s not quite the overpowering sensuousness of Adrian Lyne, but it’s the lone element of the film that works as an aphrodisiac.
Otherwise, Fifty Shades of Grey is a tangle of conflicted ideas. It’s a bondage movie for people who think bondage is disgusting and a romance with a handsome but thoroughly unromantic lead. It promises to open new vistas of sexual exploration but is hemmed in by American cinema’s prudish standards, where even a teasing glimpse of genitalia is cause for alarm.
At best, Fifty Shades of Gray is a Rorschach test to reveal the audience’s concept of acceptable sexual behavior. Mostly, though, it’s just a test of patience.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.