Fifty Shades of Grey (dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson)

Posted: February 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

The filmmakers of “Fifty Shades of Grey” obvious knew they were dealing with a live wire.  The “novel”, if one can call it that, originated as “Twilight” fan-fiction written by a woman whose screen name was “Snowqueen’s IceDragon”.  Well, change the characters’ names and presto-chango, you have something you can call an original piece of work.  I myself have never much been a fan of fan-fiction.  My general belief is that people who have writing talent will just create their own characters and narratives, and that if people with talent write fan-fiction that it is a profound and sad waste of that talent.  I haven’t exactly read a large swath of fan-fiction, so it’s possible that my opinion of the genre could well be false and ignorant, but reading the book “Fifty Shades of Grey” did nothing to change my opinion.  Granted, the original novel “Twilight” is awful, sexist Mormon abstinence propaganda, and a quasi-BDSM erotica novel based on it would have had to surmount quite a large peak to succeed at being anything beyond pure rubbish.

The book “Fifty Shades of Grey” is pure rubbish.  The prose is painfully repetitive, the dialogue is uniformly awful, and the female protagonist, with the ridiculous name of Anastasia Steele, has the first person narration more fitting of a 14-year-old girl than a 21-year-old woman.  For large periods of the book you could mistake her for being mentally handicapped.  I know the author, under the new pen name EL James, was going for innocence, but a woman who have never even held hands with a guy and is so naïve that the idea of her graduating college seems laughable is bit too far in the direction of innocence as to be a child trapped in an adult’s body.

Still, that’s nothing compared to the Christian Grey of the novel.  He’s pretty much “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman, if you replace serial killing with light BDSM.  Throughout the novel he stalks Anastasia, forces her to eat, uses hostage-taker tactics to force Anastasia into a type of Stockholm Syndrome, and is extremely manipulative, creepy, abusive, and just plain weird.  How this character became the fantasy of millions of women is something that perhaps I cannot understand because I am a man.  Or maybe because I don’t want a partner who stalks me, controls me, and scares me into compliance.

Fine, maybe some of this can work when contained to the printed word.  Women, wanting a sexual thrill, can skip the creepier parts and simply read the sex scenes, which aside from a weird scene involving a tampon, are pretty run-of-the-mill stuff.  Much has been made of the book’s, and the film’s, bondage content, but the fact of the matter is that both versions of “50 Shades” barely rise above vanilla.  I’m not into the BDSM culture myself, but I know others who are, and I’ve spent time perusing websites like Fetlife and CollarMe.  I may have even seen a video or two from Kink.com.  Some spanking, mild restraints, and blindfolds does not kinky make.  Okay, but the sex scenes in the book are a lot of Christian peppering Anastasia with compliments and having sex with her.  Fine, I get women liking that in the privacy of their own homes with their vibrator of choice.  Hell, I can even understand some women getting off on the creepy controlling aspects of Christian.  Some women have rape fantasies, and we’re all entitled to be turned on by what turns us on.  But having a rape fantasy does not mean one wants to be raped, and imagining being creepily controlled is different from seeing it portrayed on screen and seeing it before your eyes.

For this reason, it makes sense that the filmmakers wanted to soften the book’s rough edges, and I’m not just talking about the bad dialogue, characterizations, grammar and syntax, or repetitive prose.  They needed to soften to Christian, otherwise what might (and I do say might) work to turn women on in a book will simply become the kind of abusive character you see beating up has-been TV stars in Lifetime TV movies about domestic violence.  In addition, they had to have realized that Anastasia was a dumb, ignorant, mildly mentally retarded character in the book, and would be completely unworkable on film.

So here’s the main problem with the film version: they went too far in attempting to shade the book into a film that would be palatable for a mass audience that wants big budget soft-core erotica but isn’t keen on bearing witness to a woman-child’s physical and mental abuse.  The result is to have a still-stalkerish yet oddly sympathetic Christian and an Anastasia who has completely unrealistic expectations about Christian, despite his candidness, and then has unfounded anger at him when he is exactly the man he said he was.  They took a book that was anti-women for elevating a stalking pseudo-rapist into a romantic icon and made a film that is anti-women for making its female protagonist a woman who toys with a man, expecting him to change, and then when he doesn’t calls him out as a monster.  Quite frankly, the film shows us Christian playing fair and Anastasia not doing so.

The film turns Christian into a wounded puppy dog.  Christian’s back story was always pretty insulting to those in the BDSM community because it made it seem like only wounded, damaged people could be into kinky stuff.  The back story is kept the same in the film; Christian was born to a crack whore mother and later adopted.  He was introduced to BDSM by an older woman, a friend of his adopted mother’s, when he was only 15 and became that woman’s submissive.  Now, Christian is a dominant who is incapable of having a “normal”, or “vanilla”, relationship because of that one-two punch of childhood trauma and teenage sexual abuse, for which Christian has a type of Stockholm Syndrome for the woman who took advantage of him.  While the book keeps this back story and makes Christian seem like a serial killer who was turned into a monster from his past, the film takes a different approach.  The film makes it seem like Christian is trying to stop himself from becoming a monster, and as such the BDSM he engages in is like methadone.  Without it, perhaps he would be a literal serial killer.  Despite knowing what he is and what needs, he’s still attracted to Anastasia, and one gets the feeling the movie Christian is less Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho” and more Dexter from the eponymous Showtime TV series, someone who is trying to channel his dark urges but longs to be normal.  Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian, was previously most well known for playing a serial killer, and you can see he would fit that role well.  I almost wish the film had decided not to smooth the character’s rough edges.  I wish the film had brought the Bateman-esque book creation to life and forced the audience to deal with him and consider why women found themselves attracted to this monster.  That would have made for an interesting discussion into female sexuality in the modern age.  Instead, we get the kind-of-but-not-really-bad-boy that a girl thinks she can change.  The film makes Christian into a cliché.

Watering him down may make him easier to swallow, but the film takes the equal and opposite reaction of making Anastasia not the ignorant and naïve child of the book, but rather someone who leads a wounded man on in the hopes of changing him, and a woman who blames him when she can’t, even though the Christian of the film is upfront and direct.  You water down your creepy male protagonist and make your female protagonist kind of a bitch, and that’s not exactly a positive and progressive step toward fixing a story that was anti-woman in its original iteration.

Dakota Johnson, to her credit, plays the character about as best as she can.  She finds a good enough balance between believable innocence and ridiculous innocent, even when saddled with at times tremendously awful dialogue (much of it lifted directly from the book).  Despite the film being aimed at women, and presumably meant to turn them on, the bulk of the film’s nudity is hers.  We see a lot of her breasts and certainly more of her ass than we do of Dornan’s.  In fact, it’s surprising how little of Dornan we see.  While it is true that Christian usually keeps pants on until the last moment in his sexual encounters in the book, it’s weird for the film to barely show us his ass at all.  Clearly they were going for ab-worship, but in keeping with the character’s description in the book Christian is lean and not exactly the muscular man that, say, the “Magic Mike” cast is made up of.  In non-sex scenes, Dornan has a harder time delivering the awful dialogue and perhaps tries to emote with his face a bit too awkwardly, but he wears an expensive wardrobe quite well.  Even more so than the sex scenes, I found myself captivated by the clothes Christian wears, particularly a leather jacket he wears in the woods, and a button-up shirt with a blazer he wears when taking Anastasia to dinner with his family.  The film gives him way too many V-necks for a man who is supposedly touchy about his scarred chest, and it’s also odd that then he’s okay being shirtless a lot but wears old jeans in his bondage playroom, but what are you gonna do?

The sex scenes are naturally going to be a focal point of the film, much in the way action scenes are in a summer movie.  There’s plenty of nudity, though no full frontal from Dornan and too much pubic hair to see much on Johnson.  The nudity was never the main concern, however.  The real question was how the bondage scenes would be portrayed.  The answer? Well, the scenes feel like soft-core erotica.  “The Red Show Diaries” comes to mind.  The scenes are pretty brief, occasionally mildly arousing, and usually scored to music that was enjoyable to my ears.  Non-sex scenes are scored by Danny Elfman, and that score was at times unnecessary, but the sex scenes are almost exclusively scored by songs from the likes of Beyonce and The Weeknd (sic) and I found myself really liking the music.  The same flaw with the book, the scenes not really being all that kinky for all the hype about kink, is the same for the film.  We some spanking, some tame riding crop stuff, some stuff with blindfolds and ropes and cuffs and light suspension, but there’s nothing in the film that pushes the envelope more than, say, “Nine and a Half Weeks” did in the 80s of “Secretary” did 13 years ago.  We see things like butt plugs and nipple clamps hanging up in Christian’s playroom (which, if you take out all of the sex toys, is a lovely room of red and leather that I would love to have in my home some day), but we’re left to imagine what Christian may have done with past submissives because the film’s not going to show us anything that might harm the delicate sensibilities of those who can handle a lightly kinky thrill but will squirm if we see a clothespin on a nipple.

The non-sex scenes are almost uniformly too quick, choppily edited, and the dialogue, as mentioned earlier, is atrocious.  Director Sam Taylor-Johnson does a decent job making the visuals look as pretty as they can be, but the material will only allow so much, and Taylor-Johnson seemed unwilling to try bolder things, like satirizing the material with a wink or going full on “American Psycho” cold and making everything seem unappealing and unappetizing.  Having a woman direct the film seemed like a good idea, as a woman would have a better idea of what women want to see in this material than a man would, but one wishes they had a Mary Harron on board who could maybe have strengthened Anastasia in a less-bitchy and hypocritical fashion (she’s angry that Christian wants to change her but she’s been trying to change him all along) and wouldn’t have been afraid to show us the book’s Christian in all of his horrendous glory and refused to let the audience off easy in liking him.  Mickey Rourke’s character in “Nine and a Half Weeks” was a bigger asshole than Christian in this film, and the women of 1986 still found him attractive despite his cruelty.  That character’s name, by the way, was John Gray.

The film doesn’t smooth away all of Christian’s edges. He still takes Anastasia, who is passed out drunk, to his home and undresses her.  Anastasia seems to not have much of a problem with this.  Christian still finds out information on his own, like Anastasia’s work and the bar she has gotten drunk at, and shows up unexpectedly and uninvited.  He tends to appear out of nowhere much like Jason in the “Friday the 13th” movies.  He even flies to Georgia to meet Anastasia, though it comes off much less stalkerish in the film than in the book because in the film at least she texts him something along the lines of “I wish you were here”, whereas in the novel he shows up after they have a fight online.  Also sanitized from the book, a scene where he shows up at Anastasia’s apartment uninvited when she seemingly rejects him via e-mail. In the book, Christian has a shouting match with Anastasia’s roommate and barges in.  In the film, he merely materializes out of thin air with wine.

Ah yes, wine.  Whereas in the book Anastasia is pretty much an alcoholic, the film downplays this by having her only drunk once, and drinking in anger another time.  The film completely downplays Christian’s obsession with making sure Anastasia eats.  The film also contains little-to-none of the dirty talk Christian engages in during sex, nor is there any oral sex.  In fact, Anastasia performs no sex acts herself, and anything that happens sexually involves Christian doing all of the work. It’s weird that the film decides to make her more passive in sexual matters when it makes her less passive in the relationship.  The film adds a scene, which I liked, of Christian and Anastasia negotiating a bondage contract in his boardroom, and that scene showcases a much more in control Anastasia than ever appears in the book.  The film is overall reasonably faithful to the book, but the changes are all to either make Christian more sympathetic or to make Anastasia more forceful in the relationship.

Christian still engages in creepy and not entirely kosher behavior, which makes it all the more important that he’s rich.  Like “Addicted” before it, “50 Shades” fetishizes wealth and commodities more than it does the human body or sex.  We get helicopters, gliders, Audi sports cars polished to showroom glory, apartments with marble floors and floor-to-ceiling windows, expensive suits and watches…Anastasia, if anything, is more seduced by opulence than by Christian’s looks, and certainly not by his personality, of which he has little.  Sure, he claims to care about feeding the world’s poor, but most people who care about that don’t own 15 sports cars, a grand piano, and entire room in their multimillion dollar apartment devoted to their sexual predilection.  His Red Room of Pain had to have cost a couple hundred thousand dollars at the very least (a leather bed!).  Christian can operate the way he does, stalking and controlling women, partly because of his looks but largely because he’s rich as all fuck.  Give Christian a minimum wage job and Anastasia would get a restraining order.  After all, Anastasia has not one but two other men who throw themselves at her; one of whom doesn’t take no for an answer and tries to force himself on her while she’s drunk (Victor Rasuk), and one who is a co-worker and touches her a tad too inappropriately on the shoulders (Anthony Konechny).  Out of three creepy guys, she falls for the one who happens to have an ultra-modern office in a building with his name on it.  Thankfully, the film changes his business’s name to “Grey Enterprises” from the books horribly sounding and double-plural “Grey Enterprises Holdings”.  There’s still no excuse for the film giving Christian pencils with his name on them that Anastasia can then put to her mouth.

The single most inexcusable thing the film does, however, cannot be discussed without a spoiler warning.

**SPOILERS**

The end of the film shares an issue that the end of the book had, which is to completely make Anastasia a villain.  Christian has had made it abundantly clear that he is addicted to his bondage-and-control lifestyle.  Anastasia is upset that Christian wants to make her okay with being a submissive when she clearly is not okay with it.  That she wants to change Christian into a normal boyfriend when he has clearly and explicitly told her on numerous occasions that he won’t isn’t brought up at this point.  Both parties have made concessions.  Christian has agreed to one night a week of normal dating, has engaged in vanilla sex, and has introduced her to his BDSM-lite sex despite Anastasia not signing his contract.  For this, Anastasia has kept an open mind, engaged Christian on his terms vis-à-vis considering the contract and looking up terms, and found that she likes very light kink.  However, it is at this juncture that Anastasia tells Christian to take her into his playroom and let her have a “full punishment”, since he has being going light on her.  Now, Christian is not blameless for his, as any true Dom in a BDSM relationship would know not to let someone do things when they (the Dom) is aware they don’t want to do things.  Plus, that aforementioned board room scene makes it clear that Christian can read Anastasia’s body language quite well.

However, Anastasia has been made quite clear that this BDSM stuff his Christian’s drug and he can’t be without it, even if he wishes he could be (which the film implies are his wishes).  So, Christian takes her to the Red Room and hits her on the ass 6 times with his belt, not holding back, and making Anastasia call out the number after each blow.  In the sec scene just prior to this, Christian asked Anastasia to recall the safewords (yellow if she’s close to her limit, and red if her limit has reached and she wants things to come to an immediate stop).  Anastasia takes the hits and says the numbers, while crying.  She never uses either safeword, and the angle in which the action is shot makes it seem like Christian cannot see the tears in Anastasia’s eyes, as she is facing away from him.  Unlike the book, where Anastasia screams the numbers, in the film she merely whimpers them.  Safewords exist because crying and pain are to be expected, but Anastasia, who knows them and initiated this act, doesn’t use them.  Why? The film seems to visually suggest that she’s hoping Christian will change, and that by seeing her in pain he will stop on his own, state his love for her, and end the BDSM stuff.  This is unrealistic for addictions or sexual turn-ons, and while Christian should have known not to comply with her wishes to take the full brunt of his punishment, the fault seems to lay mainly with Anastasia for pushing the encounter, not using the safewords, and for having unrealistic expectations when Christian has been completely forthright with his needs and desires.  Then she calls him a monster and makes him feel like shit, emotionally wounding this already wounded man further.

The ending is repugnant because it completely makes Christian a sympathetic character (despite his stalking and undressing passed out drunk women) and makes Anastasia a heartless and cruel person who ignores what she knows in the hope something will happen that she must know is impossible.  The ending makes Anastasia, and by extension women, look horrendous.  It makes them look worse than if Anastasia were kept the idiot she is for most of the book.  For a film that is at least ostensibly for women, this is confusing as hell to me.

The very last moment of the film, with Anastasia running into an elevator and Christian chasing after her, is also problematic.  She tells him “stop” and then “no” when it could have been so much more powerful for her to finally use the word “red”.  I do like the last shots of the film, though, as the elevator doors close on her, and then him, and we cut to black and the credits (the first song of the credits I’m not a fan of, but I love the second and third songs).  It reminded me a lot of the ending of “Nine and a Half Weeks” where Kim Basinger’s character finally leaves her controlling Mr. Gray and he stands at the door counting, hoping she’ll come back, and she doesn’t.

**END SPOILERS**

The “Fifty Shades of Grey” film is really not much more than a poor man’s “Nine and a Half Weeks”, but with a rich man’s aesthetics for props and production design.  The film looks pretty enough, and the soundtrack is enjoyable.  The sex scenes work fairly well, and while non-sex scenes can be haphazardly edited and too-brief, the unintentional hilarity of the bad dialogue and lightning fast pacing make the film enjoyable to watch for its entire runtime.  The film actually feels like it should be longer and, hey, I’d rather see this film again than any of the “Twilight” films.

Yes, the film has major issues on a story level (some inherited from the book, and some new to film because of the filmmakers attempts to fix the book) and can be ideologically repugnant(both because of what it says about gender and its fetishizing of wealth and capitalism), but at the same time it kind of warms my heart to see a mainstream Hollywood picture attempt soft-core in a way not seen since the age of late 80s and early 90s films like “Nine and a Half Weeks” and “Wild Orchid”.  It sometimes seems sex has disappeared from American cinema and been pushed to HBO and cable while violence has bled down from R to PG-13 (it’s nearly impossible to get an NC-17 for violence these days, and “50 Shades” avoids that rating for sex likely because it holds back on shots of thrusting).  It’s just a shame that women deserve a film that doesn’t make women look horrible and doesn’t make a wounded stalker their Prince Charming, and the BDSM community deserves a film that accurately portrays them to a wider audience on the big screen.

Grade: C

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