Only a couple minutes in, it’s clear that Fifty Shades of Grey will be ludicrous. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) gasps out loud at the Seattle skyline like she’s never seen a city (or Seattle) before, even though she’s driving there from Portland. Wrapped in a stupid cardigan woven from the sad, blue DNA of the kind of awkward women that primarily exist in movies—which looks nothing like anything she’ll wear at any other point in the movie, mind—she proceeds to fall flat on her face while entering the office of self-made billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Johnson plays nervous by talking really slowly and leaving lengthy spaces mid-sentence; Dornan plays charismatic by…taking off his shirt a lot later in the movie? It’s a meet-cute where they fall immediately in love: her because he’s handsome; him because she forgets a pen to write with. The problem, if you’ve never heard of the E.L. James novel on which this is based, is that Christian is a BDSM enthusiast who doesn’t do “normal” relationships or vanilla sex. Annie Lennox’s “I Put a Spell On You” plays, if you haven’t already been knocked unconscious from the dropping anvils.
Here’s a scenario: you are a modern filmmaker. You’re given the keys to a property about BDSM with a built-in audience and marketing plan. You’re well aware that the primary criticism of the source material is the completely ridiculous way its narrator talks, thinks, and acts. You have grave concerns over Ana’s futile attempts to assert her intellectual, college-educated, feminist autonomy in the face of the overwhelming carnal ecstasy her body experiences when submitting to overly eager would-be Dom Christian. You are also troubled by Ana’s portrayal as a college student who has never owned a computer, and as a lit major with aspirations to work in publishing who a) forgets to bring writing utensils to important interviews, and b) expresses a vast range of emotions with the following semantic eloquence: “Holy crap!”
What’s your solution? Screenwriter Kelly Marcel and Director Sam Taylor-Johnson deal with this problem by renovating Ana’s character, though it’s not a full renovation: Ana now owns a “broken” computer, at least, but her phone is still from 2001, she still allows Christian to lecture her on drinking too much (at an after finals party) and she’s still a virgin. The movie slightly modifies that last point by having her clearly state that this is because she has not met the right partner yet. (Of course, in both versions she doesn’t believe she’s desirable despite the reams of chisel-chested men in her life who want to knock boots.) The most important change? She is, if not explicitly feminist, positioned as an independent force against Christian’s overbearing desire to have her submit to his will. She calls him on his shit. Not in an interesting way, mind—this movie isn’t actually engaging, and she’s still in lurve with him—but she does call him out.
In one sense, it’s not a bad solution, and parts of the film—the ones that consequently depict Christian as a creep who refuses to listen to the desires Ana clearly and repeatedly expresses—are better than they have any right to be. At the same time, this movie isn’t supposed to be the story of an emotionally vacant Dom who is crappy at communicating what he wants to a woman of whom he’s asking a lot, so the tension between the plot of the book and the film’s conception of Ana creates a movie that doesn’t make a lick of sense. The story and the marketing are based on a simple idea: that Ana will be a vanilla audience’s portal into the sexy world of BDSM, and that her initiation into this world will be titillating even for people who have never considered BDSM play before. In this sense, the movie fails entirely.
Part of the problem is that there’s not nearly enough sex in this movie, a movie whose attraction relies entirely on sex scenes, and so little plot that builds to these sex scenes. For example, much of the mid-section of the film is a montage devoted to Christian pestering Ana to sign a Dom/Sub contract. Those contracts are important, so it’s ludicrous that Christian is demanding, overly earnest and really bad at explaining to Ana what she might get out of agreeing to submit to his domination. At one point, he simply snarls, “Me.”
Ana does want Christian, but only as what she keeps vaguely referring to as a “normal” boyfriend. She’s fine with light bondage play, but she’s not really down for a serious lifestyle change that involves becoming Christian’s fulltime Sub—which is the reason she keeps refusing to sign the contract. How is the audience supposed to be excited or titillated about Ana’s initiation into the world of BDSM if there hasn’t really been any formal mutual consent and it is abundantly clear to everyone except Christian Grey that she’s just not that into the idea?
This issue doesn’t just manifest in the script, but in the film’s production. In the few BDSM scenes we get, the camera shies away: tight close-ups obscure Christian’s whips and chains and instead focus on Christian caressing Ana’s body for a few moments before having fairly straightforward sex with her. The whole artistry of BDSM—the patience, the anticipation, and the blurring of lines between pain and pleasure—is erased. What’s the point? Why is this film about BDSM scared of the very thing it’s actively marketing to its audience?
Dornan does his best with this material, but Christian doesn’t just come off like a creep, he’s a completely ineffective creep. At no point does he offer a sustained explanation of what Ana might enjoy about being a Sub; instead he just gets her a computer and commands her to so some “research.” After their first serious BDSM session, Ana decides to go visit her mother, which, like every other thing she does in this movie, provokes Christian’s jealously. He flies to Savannah, telling her his BDSM mentor advised him to come fight for her. So, just to be clear: your BDSM mentor advised you that the best way to deal with a potential Sub who is clearly chafing against the constraints you keep trying to impose upon her is to chase her down to remind her of those constraints?
What’s worse, amidst this confusion about how we’re supposed to take Christian’s clumsy advances, Fifty Shades of Grey ends up taking a fairly offensive position against BDSM. At several points, Ana demands that Christian explain why he wants to hurt her. Christian keeps telling her that it’s because “this is the way I am.” Ana insists there must be a reason, and Christian eventually suggests there might well be a reason (in a monologue he delivers while Ana is asleep) that bafflingly suggests she might remind him of his crack-addicted mother. At no point does the movie consider the idea that Christian might be into BDSM because he is into BDSM. Instead, there is only the ever-present hint that something must be wrong with him. And because Christian is, as he himself puts it, “50 shades of fucked up,” we shouldn’t accept anything he has to say about the potential pleasures of BDSM at face value.
Couple this with how elements of BDSM are also exploited for laughs. The filmmakers already know we know what Christian’s secret is, so before Ana becomes aware of Christian’s predilections he is saddled with a bunch of double entendres at which the audience is clearly supposed to chuckle. Later on, negotiations over the contract in which Ana dismisses anal and vaginal fisting as potential activities—and then asks what a butt plug is, showing the she’s both really done a whole lot of research into this potentially life-changing decision and, also, this lit major apparently doesn’t understand how words work—are also played for humor. Is BDSM sexy or funny? Maybe it can be both, but not if it’s never taken seriously in the first place.
Fifty Shades could have been a film about Ana coming to terms with the fact that she isn’t sexually compatible with the man she loves (which would require the writers to find a reason she is in love with him), or you can have a film where Ana meets an attractive man who inducts her into a sexual world she’s never contemplated before. The film tries to be about both, and the result is that the “sexy” scenes are flaccid—but fortunately too tame to be really uncomfortable—and the “dramatic” scenes are boring and repetitive. Ultimately, Fifty Shades of Grey spends two hours describing a relationship that is bound to fail and doesn’t even seem all that fun while it’s occurring. Here are two people who are suspicious of each other’s intentions but also in love because…because they are. Sexuality isn’t deviance, love isn’t this magical, and Christian Grey playing sad songs on a piano after sex isn’t endearing. Even with his shirt off.
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Writer: Kelly Marcel
Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Marcia Gay-Harden
Released: February 12, 2015
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.