Jun 242015

My apologies for addressing the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey so late. I obtained one copy of the film through admittedly dubious means (let’s just say the text messages are in Spanish), and another in which the subtitles were in originally in, I think, Thai, then covered up by another layer of subtitles in Spanish, and all the explicit sex was cut.

Beyond all that, I could only watch about five minutes at a time. Somebody asked me how I got through the film and I joked, “I kept a fifth of Scotch handy.”

The film does address some of the more egregious flaws of the book. There are no CGI chibi-versions of Ana’s inner goddess and subconscious jumping around, and we are spared Ana’s vapid internal monologue and EL James’ awkward prose. Some of the awful dialogue is recontextualized as jokes. Christian’s stalking is muted slightly. Dakota Johnson does a remarkable job of taking Ana, a two-dimensional character at best, and adding some wit and sparkle.

Jamie Dornan, however, makes Christian an even flatter character. He’s rich, and he’s handsome, and that’s about it, with no particular charisma or intelligence. He’s one of innumerable Byronic leading men who just need a good woman, right down to inhabiting cold, sterile offices and penthouses. Ana’s in pastels, Christian’s in cool whites and greys and blues. The “Red Room of Pain” is supposed to represent Christian’s repressed passionate side, but even it doesn’t feel like a real place inhabited by real people.

The sex is safely within the realm of the MPAA’s Restricted rating, not an NC-17. We get frontal nudity from Johnson, but the camera refuses to go full-frontal on Dornan. The direction doesn’t really push the envelope of what is shown on screen, and there’s no particular creativity or imagination in the way the sex is shot. I would guess they were aiming for “tasteful”, but the result is bland and squeamish, the aesthetic of a thousand women’s magazine pictorials. It’s 2015. I don’t think Americans need to be coy about dick anymore. In particular, I think heterosexual American women are ready and eager to see male genitals, or at least don’t need to be shielded from them, in a movie marketed as being for their pleasure. This may have been necessitated by having to sell the film in overseas markets, which have different rules about nudity.

It wouldn’t be Fifty Shades of Grey without hopelessly screwed up ideas about relationships and gender roles. It’s all there: Ana’s absurd naivete, Christian’s stalking, the naked worship of wealth and privilege. When Ana jokingly says, “Nice knowing you”, in an email, Christian somehow appears in her house, grabs her and throws her on the bed. The film blunts this scene’s rape-y quality by having Ana grin when Christian says, “Is this what you want?” While the film’s driving question is presented as, “Can love conquer lust?”, the emphasis on Christian’s wealth, and Ana’s discomfort with BDSM, makes the question more like, “How much uncomfortable sex would you put up with for X amount of money or the equivalent in gifts?” That’s not romance, that’s sex work. (Red pill/men’s rights activists cite this movie as supporting everything they say about women.)

Like its source material, the film shows BDSM but doesn’t have a coherent position about it. BDSM, or rather its paraphernalia, lends itself well to visual representation: all the costumes, restraints, implements, etc. Ana shows some interest in it, but she’s still being pressured by Christian to go into the deep end of the pool, when she just wants to wade around for the moment, maybe some paddling. The film mentions Christian’s other submissives and his back story as a sub to another woman, but doesn’t go into it. The narrative climaxes with Ana telling Christian to hit her as hard as he wants, not as hard as she wants to be hit, and deciding that this makes him a monster, and leaving him. This means a sequel, alas….

Also like its source material, the film is at best a mediocre work that is a commercial success, more due to marketing rather than any inherent quality. The revenue brought in means that we will probably see more erotic films marketed towards straight women, but that does not guarantee that they will be progressive in terms of gender roles or sexuality.

The film was shot in Vancouver, where I live, and a member of the local BDSM community was recruited to act as a consultant. I’ve met him, but he’s unable to talk about working on the production because of all the non-disclosure agreements he signed (hopefully, he read them first). He appears in the following mini-documentary:


Another mini-documentary comparing Christian’s seduction technique to cult indoctrination:

Just for fun, here’s “Everything wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey in 18 minutes or less”:


All I can say is, I can’t wait for the Rifftrax version.

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