Keith: After months of build-up, we finally saw Fifty Shades Of Grey, and it’s an extremely odd movie. On the one hand, I appreciated that this adaptation of E.L. James’ erotic bestseller clearly isn’t the work of someone with a Robert McKee book open beside her laptop. There are no traditional story beats, no real act structure, no antagonist—it all just sort of happens. On the other hand, what makes it unusual also makes it kind of boring. There are long stretches between scenes that advance the relationship between virginal college senior Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), to say nothing of the sex scenes. That said, while I thought Dornan was kind of a well-muscled dud as Christian, Johnson brings a winning lightness to the movie, particularly in the first half, in which she goes from one shock to the next as Christian brings her into his world of riding crops and cable ties. But I like the look of the movie; director Sam Taylor-Johnson has a good eye for moody, iron-cold images that set off the carnality nicely. And while much of the film is sort of like watching attractive people parade through a luxury catalog, the sex scenes aren’t boring.
They are, however, kind of confusing. We should probably start by talking about the sex. Fifty Shades Of Grey treats BDSM as a practice that’s all about consent, mutual pleasure, and clearly defined limits. It also treats it as an incredibly creepy, shameful activity instigated by a fucked-up guy who behaves like a creepy stalker and is only into all this weird stuff because of his abusive childhood. Which is it? The film can never seem to make up its mind, and Christian changes from scene to scene. And not just his mood—he’s supposed to be a moody guy—but his fundamental character. He’s like a kinky, bipolar Heathcliff, and the film doesn’t seem to know how it feels about him. Am I missing something, or is he just poorly drawn? And does Ana’s confused attitude about sex and BDSM mirror the book’s?
Genevieve: It’s been a while since I read James’ book, and only slightly less time since I attempted to purge all of it from my memory, but from what I can recall, Ana’s constant waffling about BDSM is fairly true to the book’s characterization of her. (I gather this changes over the subsequent two books, but I bailed after the first, so I can’t say for certain.) Remember, Anastasia Steele began as Bella Swan, the protagonist of the Twilight books, in Master Of The Universe, the online fanfic that became Fifty Shades after some rejiggering of names and minimal rewrites. Like Bella, Ana is characterized by indecision mixed with stubbornness, and the rising action of the book and film, such as it is, centers on her not knowing what she wants, but going after it anyway—which is apparently sexy? I don’t know.
Christian is an even more problematic character for several reasons, but it all boils down to the fact that we only get to see him through Ana’s eyes in the book, and to a lesser extent in the film as well. An inexperienced, naive, indecisive young woman who regularly references her “inner goddess”—a frequent line from the book that’s thankfully excised from the film—is perhaps not the best conduit to the damaged psyche of a rich, kinky, emotionally and physically scarred man, and much of Fifty Shades the book centers on Ana bemoaning Christian’s “fifty shades of fucked-up.” (Yes, that is a quote from the book, one that’s repeated ad nauseam, but thankfully only makes one appearance in the film.) Ana doesn’t understand Christian, and therefore neither do we. And while I think Johnson’s performance as Ana is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film, her onscreen presence is somewhat at odds with her character: Frankly, she comes across more mature and worldly than makes sense for her character, which exacerbates the confusing nature of Ana’s behavior.
I will give Fifty Shades the film credit for this: Its attempts to show the compromises and sacrifices involved when two people try to bring their individual sexual and romantic tastes and experience levels into alignment are fairly nuanced, if also fairly confusing. Granted, in the real world that doesn’t usually involve non-disclosure agreements, as Ana and Christian’s relationship does, but their tentative dance around each other felt relatively true-to-life (only with more helicopter and glider rides), especially considering that Fifty Shades Of Grey only covers the first few weeks of their relationship. There are a whole bunch of sticky issues surrounding the nature of their sex life, which have been written about extensively here and elsewhere; but if you subtract the contract negotiations and “red room of pain” and Christian wanting to dictate when and how much Ana eats (I’m not even kidding, don’t get me started), the searching, tentative nature of their early interactions with each other are kind of well, sweet, even romantic. Am I insane, Keith, or did you get that feeling too?
Keith: I think you’re on to something. “Romantic” might be pushing it, but the best parts of the movie involve the mix of awkwardness and attraction that defines their early relationship. It’s like the beginning of most romantic relationships, only writ large and with more references to anal fisting than most courtships. (I’m assuming. I haven’t been single in a while.)
To spin off something you referenced, I think the movie might have been stronger if it had stuck even tighter to Ana’s perspective. Christian doesn’t that much sense as a character, but the movie plays him as too present to be an enigma: In one scene (well, more than one scene), he’s talking about how he doesn’t do romance, but a few moments later he’s at Ana’s side at her graduation not even flinching when someone calls him her boyfriend. This is someone we’re told has never been photographed with a woman. Next thing you know, he’s being photographed next to Ana. I don’t understand this character at all. I’m not even sure he is a character, but if he’s going to be a man of mystery, the film should have done more to keep him out of mundane situations. It’s hard to be in awe of the guy and his sexual eccentricities when he’s shown hanging around Ana’s apartment, even if that hangout session ends in a spanking.
Convenient segue: I think the sex scenes work better the less we know about Christian, too. One thing everyone who’s read the book has told me is that the sex is described exclusively from Ana’s point of view and that this is something of a rarity in erotica and romance novels. When the film sticks with Ana’s perspective, it keeps an air of mystery. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen next and neither do we. The POV is even literal at times: Director Sam Taylor-Johnson shows a couple of shots of—pardon the indelicate phrasing—Christian mounting Ana from her viewpoint. That’s not a shot you see often. In fact, the only other movie I know that uses it is Rosemary’s Baby, where it’s employed to a different effect.The sex grows more unusual the more time we spend with them as a couple, and the more it becomes a story about their couplehood and not Ana’s immersion in his world, but it also grows a little less charged.
Which I guess brings us to another big question about this movie: Does it work as erotica? The novel brought sexually explicit literature to a new audience. Will those showing up for this movie have a similar revelation?
Genevieve: That’s hard to say, because what’s erotic to one person isn’t necessarily erotic to another, due to vagaries of taste, experience, mood, etc. Certainly fans of the books are coming into Fifty Shades Of Grey the movie predisposed to find it sexy, while those coming in looking to snicker at it probably won’t. (And, just a quick note to those people: Please be quiet and respectful in your snickering. This movie is important to a lot of people, and it’s unfair and unkind to ruin their moviegoing experience with your cynicism. Thank you.)
However, I think Taylor-Johnson does right by the movie’s many sex scenes, for the most part, imbuing them with a lush, fantasy feel that’s very much in the vein of well-lit “movie-sex” without necessarily tipping over into cheesiness. Again, mileage may vary when it comes to one’s definition of “cheesiness,” but with only one exception I can recall, nothing about Fifty Shades’ sex scenes elicited giggles or eyerolls from me. (That one exception: A needlessly flashy shot where the camera rotates from Ana’s face up toward a reflective ceiling that shows Christian, erm, thrusting from behind. Not a great look.) But nothing about the sex scenes really surprised or titillated me, either; it all felt very proficient, well-thought-out, and, well, sterile to me. Pretty sex isn’t necessarily sexy sex, and Fifty Shades’ sex scenes are very pretty; that may or may not be enough to arouse viewers.
I will say, though, given all the hubbub about what the movie would and wouldn’t show within the constraints of its R-rating, I was both pleased with and a little annoyed by Fifty Shades’ approach to nudity. Both Ana and Christian are frequently, unashamedly nude, which is nice to see between two lovers; no strategically placed bedsheets or quickly hiked-up boxers here. However, due to the hypocritical prudishness embedded in the American mainstream movie system, the camera frequently lingers over Johnson’s breasts—often without her face in the shot—while Dornan’s flashes of forbidden skin (and pubes!) are just that: quick flashes. Given the straight-female perspective and, presumably, audience, it seems a little odd that we see so little of what Ana sees, flesh-wise, though on the whole I think the lack of preciousness surrounding the film’s nudity is refreshing, if not quite revelatory.
On that note, I want to get a little hypothetical here: Do you think this film would have worked better if it had gone the NC-17 or not-rated route? With a potential cash cow of this magnitude, there was never any doubt this movie would take the R-rating and the bigger ticket sales it ensures. But from an artistic standpoint, do you think Fifty Shades would have been more successful if it had been able to be more explicit?
Keith: I wish it would have. Or, more accurately, I wish the NC-17 rating worked like it was supposed to, which was to take away the stigma of the X rating and carve out a space for films that aren’t pornographic but do contain more explicit content than would fit in an R-rated movie. But the NC-17 has rarely been applied, especially after the box-office failure of Showgirls, which became a guinea pig for whether or not hype and controversy could push an NC-17 movie over the top. I’d love for a ballsier, in every sense, sequel to reclaim that rating, but that’s not going to happen.
So, as we near the end of this discussion, how do we feel about this movie? I can’t say I like it, but I don’t hate it, and I’m kind of glad it exists if only for the discussions its generated. (Like this.) It’s also, in its own way, more pleasurable than painful, a slickly made piece of professional erotica of the sort that rarely gets made anymore, and seldom on this scale. As a kid who grew up on furtively recorded ’70s Euro erotica, I have a soft spot for softcore. And as someone who’s gone back to a couple of those films as a grown-up, it’s evident that some of those who made them were, accidentally or not, taking the temperature of the era’s sexual attitudes while trying to turn audiences on. I doubt this will lead to a new wave of sexy movies, but who knows?
What did you end up liking about this film, Genevieve? And do you see it changing depictions of sex on film?
Genevieve: You know what I came away from this film really excited about? It wasn’t the state of BDSM on film or Jamie Dornan’s abs; it was the killer soundtrack. I have little to no desire to revisit this film in the future, but I can easily see its soundtrack working its way into my regular rotation. Songs by The Weeknd, Jessie Ware, Ellie Goulding, Beyonce, and more lend Ana and Christian’s romantic and sexual encounters a heated charge I feel confident they wouldn’t have without such well-chosen songs. Well, except for the inclusion of Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft,” which is a direct pull from the book. I hate that song and hate how it sticks out like a sore thumb among the sensual, heady R&B that pulses through the rest of the movie.
Beyond that, though, like you, I found little to offend in this movie—Tasha’s dead on in her assessment of how it sands down all of the story’s potentially sharp corners—without really liking it. But I remain happy that it exists, and specifically, that it exists on a blockbuster scale. I’ve seen the argument Fifty Shades Of Grey’s commercial success—which seems to be a foregone conclusion at this point—could potentially open the door for future knockoffs that are even more problematic, more tone-deaf explorations of female sexuality and BDSM, and while that might be the case, I cling to hope that it could also open the door for good films of its stripe. (If nothing else, I came away from this movie desperately wanting to see The Duke Of Burgundy even more than I already did, so that’s something for cinephiles to take to heart.) Visibility is a big component of progress, and even if Fifty Shades Of Grey can’t be held up as a paragon of female sexual liberation and empowerment, it does serve as a proof-of-concept that such films could find success, if they can manage to tap into the zeitgeist the same way James’ creation did. That may seem like a big “if,” but the mainstream success and acceptance of a poorly written, widely mocked fan-fiction based on a young woman’s sexual awakening seemed like a pretty big “if,” too, and look where we are now.