Saturday Night at the Movies Gidget goes submissive
By Dennis Hartley
Fifty Shades of Grey: Makes 2 hours feel like 9 1/2 Weeks
Fifty Shades of Greyis either the most cleverly arch soft core porn parody of all time, or...they were trying to be serious. Hang on a sec (with apologies to John Stewart), I'm just receiving word that yes, they actually were trying to be serious. Oh...and I understand that it was apparently based on a novel, which I'm being told has done rather well in the sales department. I haven't read the book, but if it is a virtually plotless, kinky sex fantasy that is curiously devoid of any real kinkiness or sexiness, then I'm here to tell you that this is one film that's faithful to the book.
It's really your typical tale of a virginal English Lit major named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) who meets cute with a hunky (and mysterious) Seattle-based 27 year-old bachelor billionaire businessman named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). And it's like, you know, total kismet. Because, you see, Anastasia is a last-minute fill-in for her roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford), who was supposed to conduct an in-person interview with Mr. Grey at his corporate HQ for their college newspaper...but she got the flu (or something). So anyway, Anastasia's all like, you know, rolling her eyes and junk about the whole shebang, but OK, she'll do it, because she's a good friend. After spending about 5 minutes in Mr. Grey's lofty, spacious and impressively appointed executive office, rattling off probing questions like "Are you gay?" from her roommate's notes (and faster than you can say "porn movie exposition"), Anastasia and Christian are exhibiting signs of Mutual Attraction. Mere days pass, and before she knows what hit her, Christian is handing her a contract for her to review and sign. You know, one of those contracts wherein the First Party (the Submissive) agrees to all the terms dictated by the Second Party (the Dominant), which are, to wit, Abandon all Hope, Ye Who Enter Here...and to cater to every sexual whim of her dominant male master. How many times have we heard that love story?
There are some intriguing avenues that crop up, but none of them are explored. For instance, there’s a glimmer of Hitchcock’s Marnie in the person of Christian Grey; a tormented, sexually dysfunctional character who hints at some kind of childhood trauma that makes him seemingly incapable of genuine affection and love. Instead, he remains a cardboard figure throughout, with no sense of depth or backstory beyond the fact that we are informed early on that He’s Mysterious (Dornan’s one-note performance, which vacillates somewhere between catatonic and Ben Stiller’s “blue steel” look from Zoolander, certainly doesn’t help the cause). To her credit, Johnson (who comes across as an oddly endearing morph between Zooey Deschanel and Charlotte Gainsbourg) gives a palpable impression now and then that she’s having fun with her role, occasionally managing to rise above Kelly Marcel’s insipid script, especially in a scene where Anastasia calls a “business meeting” with Christian to negotiate over the terms of the aforementioned contract (‘Anal fisting’? That’s right out…and uh, what exactly is a ‘butt plug’?). If the film really had been intended to be a parody, that particular scene would be comedy gold.
But alas, the film is neither comedy, nor is it drama. Nor is it particularly kinky (despite the lovingly fetishistic camera pans of the various accoutrements that adorn Christian’s “play room”). And perhaps most notably, it’s not in the least bit sexy. In fact, it barely qualifies as soft core; it’s about as erotic as a TV ad for Viagra. Despite the intrinsically provocative nature of its SM theme, the film comes off as a weirdly sanitized affair (it might as well be a remake of Beach Blanket Bingo) While it lightly flirts with gender politics (who’s really in control of the relationship in the film?) it is certainly not making any kind of political statement (like in the thematically similar but far superior 2002 film, Secretary, or if you really want to kick it with ol’skool references-Swept Awayor The Night Porter ). The end result is a total wash. There’s no “there” there. The film is its own 51st shade of grey. I’m reticent to lay all blame at the feet of director Sam Taylor-Johnson, as I admired her debut film Nowhere Boy (so much so that it made my Top 10 films for 2010) but I guess the buck has to stop there, as much as it pains me to say.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for suspending my disbelief when I sit down to watch a narrative film (even a film that is somewhat devoid of a narrative...like this one, for example). But if you present me with a protagonist like Anastasia, who appears to be a literate, college-educated young woman with a strong sense of self, and then ask me to believe that she would miss so many red flags on the way to falling head over heels for a creepy sexual predator like Christian Grey? Not buying it for a second. Red flags, you ask? What about sweet talk like this: "I'd like to bite that lip. But I'm not touching you until I have written consent." Or “I don’t do love.” Or “I don’t ‘make love’…I fuck.” (How dreamy! Betcha he says that to all the girls). Not to mention the stalking behavior. Or the fact that he recoils from any attempt by Anastasia to express affection. Maybe I shouldn't get so worked up; after all, who's going to buy this premise anyway, in our modern, feminism-enlightened society? Wait a sec...now I'm being told that millions of people (the majority of them women) have literally bought into it...with some 70 million copies of E.L. James' books sold worldwide, and the record-breaking presales of nearly 3 million movie tickets.
So perhaps at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter whether this film is “good” or “bad”. Maybe it’s just one of those critic-proof “event” movies so hotly anticipated that it comes out of the box enrobed by a protective cocoon of cultish devotees who simply will not be swayed by the nattering nabobs of negativism like Yours Truly. After all, it’s only a movie. But it still begs the question: Why this film, with its weirdly draconian subtexts…and why now? Aren’t there enough stories on CNN about hostage-taking, torture and suffering (and lest we forget, the systemic suppression of women all around the world) to turn people off to the idea of hitching their star to an erotic fantasy about willingly signing up for this kind of shit? Or am I overthinking it again?
And one more thing…
Just wanted to take a moment to thank the readers who kindly took time out of your day to email me and inquire if I was still amongst the living. For those of you who care, the reason for my extended absence was knee replacement surgery. Recovery, which included an unexpected 3 weeks in an assisted nursing facility (the most sobering and dispiriting type of place you'd ever want to be stuck in, this side of a Turkish prison) has been painful and slow, but I’m getting my mojo back (God help me, now I have to consider getting the other one done…not so eager). But hey, enough of my yakkin’. I may not post every week, but essentially, I’m back, at your service.