Film Review – Fifty Shades of Grey
Fifty Shades of Grey
In Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), virginal literature student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) enters into a BDSM relationship with billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). The main point of tension is the negotiation of a contract. This contract outlines the dominant/submissive sexual arrangement that Christian will have over Anastasia if she chooses to be with him. From the types of bondage used to the level of pain inflicted, everything that will happen between them is negotiated in detail. The main crux of the plot involves Anastasia’s hesitancy to agree to this deal. Oh, there’s plenty of sex that happens, don’t get me wrong. But there’s one troubling aspect that lingers above this entire film:
Anastasia never signs the contract.
Now I don’t claim to know anything about BDSM, but from what I can gather, people choose to participate through a mutual understanding and respect. The submissive is getting just as much out of it as the dominant. What disturbs me about Anastasia and Christian is that consent is never reached. Throughout, Anastasia contemplates, recoils, and flat out turns down Christian’s advances about the contract. While looking up the word “submissive” online, Anastasia is repulsed by the pictures she sees. Yet Christian still ends up persuading her to go through with it. There’s something just wrong about that. What I’m guessing is meant to be a woman’s sexual blossoming comes off more as a twisted character’s obsession to control someone physically and emotionally.
E.L. James (novel), Kelly Marcel (screenplay), and Sam Taylor-Johnson (director) have crafted a disturbing story under the guise of romantic fantasy. Christian Grey is a mysterious playboy that every girl wants to be with, but in reality hides demons that make him a sociopath. After their first encounter, Anastasia is smitten beyond belief, but there’s no basis for that reaction. Jamie Dornan inhabits Christian as a steely-eyed, montone, no nonsense character. For someone who’s supposed to be sexually irresistible, Christian simply doesn’t sizzle. His mannerisms push us away instead of pull us in, and it only gets worse once his real desires come to the forefront. For a role that’s supposed to smolder like a young Marlon Brando, Christian Grey has more similarity with Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000).
Dakota Johnson does her best with Anastasia. She’s effective at being the comedic klutz: tripping over things, never grasping the double entendres, etc. She gets a few good one-liners in, whether we’re supposed to laugh with or at her. But Anastasia’s motivations toward Christian do not make sense. What is it about him that attracts her? It clearly isn’t his charming personality. Is it his wealth? When he brings her into his “playroom,” why doesn’t she run away in terror? Every time she bites her lip, I wondered what the hell she was so fascinated with. If she can’t handle looking at pictures online, what makes her think she can handle it in real life? Since this is a fantasy, Anastasia has the mindset of being that “one special person” who can change Christian. Even when he tells her how many women he’s had in the same arrangement (because a person like him would keep count), she still continues along. This is a strange dynamic where Anastasia – under the false belief that she has ability to influence – allows herself to be tied up, beaten, and controlled by Christian in an effort to make him fall in love with her. Oh, how romantic!
The sex, which I’m sure everybody will be eager to see, is dreadfully not sexy. Oddly – given that the author, screenwriter, director, and the main protagonist are all female – it’s Anastasia who bares it all. Not much is seen of Mr. Grey, except for the rare bum shot. While there’s a good amount of sexual encounters, they’re all photographed and edited the same way: with soft lighting and quick dissolves showing a body part here and there. There’s nothing all that sensational, graphic, or titillating. It’s about even to anything you’d see on Red Shoe Diaries or late night Cinemax. If you have an interest in watching other people getting it on, there are other, cheaper ways to do it besides this.
This film unnerved me, and not in a good way. Seeing a girl getting tied up, whipped, and sexually humiliated is not my thing. And this is set to be a box office hit! Christian’s pursuit of Anastasia is downright creepy. This is not the same as say, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) where the relationship is meant to be disturbing. There’s an ambivalence here that feels irresponsible, it doesn’t take a stand as to how Christian and Anastasia are meant to be perceived. The things he does tells us: no matter what a girl says or how unsure she is, as long as you take her on a helicopter ride you’ll be allowed to do anything you want with her. If you admit you had a bad childhood, that’ll give you the keys to the goods. Gimme a break. And she wants him because…why again?
If anything, Fifty Shades of Grey can function as a barometer for society’s weird fascination of all things kinky. At my screening, it was packed to the brim, with people taking selfies to mark the occasion. Afterwards, some waited in line to grab a poster. What is it about this story that struck such a chord with popular culture? Is it because it started out as Twilight fan fiction and is enjoying the remnants of that success? Is it the result of the massive ad campaign? Or do people just want to see trashy things on screen? Because in terms of story and character, this film is in desperate need of a safe word.