Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
By Roderick Heath
Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel by pseudonymous writer E .L. James, has become that rarest of contemporary phenomena—a novel not aimed at children or young adults that is a true pop-cultural totem. It’s also a very old-fashioned kind of hit, the scandalous bestseller everyone snapped up just to see if it was as deliciously filthy as they hoped. This was no anodyne, run-of-the-mill romance novel, journey-of-growth memoir, arty feminist artefact, or any other chick lit cliché, no, this was an outright erotic novel, harking back to the glory days of The Story of O. and Emmanuelle. And it was not just an erotic novel, but one in which sadomasochism is a crucial theme. The novel broke many rules about what should gain precedence in popular appreciation, not just in subject matter, but also in genesis. The work began life as fan fiction on an online site—the slime ponds on the edges of the great ocean of literary culture—built out of the archetypes presented in Stephanie Meyer’s equally popular, equally derided Twilight novels. Initially published as an ebook and then released in print when it became clear it was going to be something big, Fifty Shades shattered publishing records.
Whatever magic spot Meyer’s creation had located with her essentially sexless tales of deathless romance, James found, too, and filled in what was missing, providing counterbalance and revelling in the filthy adult side of the fantasy. Nothing particularly original there: erotic spinoffs from popular artworks have long been covert currency, and have gained a powerful online presence since some dirty mind let go with the notion of Kirk and Spock gettin’ it on, giving birth to so-called “slashfic”: since then just about any fictional character you can think of has been in the sack with any other one you can think of in some fetid corner of the internet. James eventually rewrote and expanded her daydream smut to arrive at its current form, but as far as many are concerned, it never quite escaped the status of troubling, parasitic growth on the underbelly of an already embarrassing property.
As with any cultural phenomenon, What It All Means had to be pinned down, and in the case of a work that disturbed a tenuous balance of acceptability, safely disposed of. Pundits opined, ideologues worried, experts pontificated. Sexy stuff being sexy doesn’t cut it. From my perhaps all-too-male perspective, the book’s success represents both a triumph and a failure of feminism in a dichotomous manner that, far from aberrant, is rather commonplace today. It plays with the old-school fantasy of meeting a rich, handsome guy with issues just dark enough to both alarm and appeal, but also offers a frank, fearless interest in erotic pleasure and questions of agency that are utterly current. The special contempt many saved up for the Twilight tales was merely a manifestation of a certain vestigial, preadolescent contempt by a boy’s club commentariat for things women like compared to the serious business of turning stories where men in spandex punch each other into grand movie epics. Some of that was certainly turned on Fifty Shades, too, combined with the fact that BDSM will inevitably still be a subject of confusion and hostility to many long after we’re all dead. Of course, the book was bad (full disclosure: I tried to read it, but lost interest, ironically, when James reached the stuff everyone else was reading it for). But that was perhaps part of the point. The banal, conversational, pseudo-interior monologue style of writers like Meyer and James has annexed fields of readership long detached from fancier fare, working like mental glycerine.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s debut film Nowhere Boy (2009) was an intelligent, but frustrating work, mostly because of a low budget that hampered its sense of period, one that suggested her intimate, ambivalent understanding of the stranger routes of desire. When it comes to Fifty Shades, Taylor-Johnson doesn’t quite seem to approve, which is both what makes her film intriguingly contradictory and frustratingly indecisive. It goes virtually without saying that Fifty Shades hardly represents a descent into the darkest, most decadent depths of Sadean frenzy. The way James exploited this turf lends itself immediately to filming because it identifies S&M as such a visual style of eroticism. All that shiny latex and metal looks so damn good, and it is about the perspective of watching things done to the body in a way that can be read by a cinema audience in a manner not so different to the animating spirit many have found lurking in slasher films, where the body is violated to release a certain frustration in the viewer. Just watching two people happily hump in the normal fashion is as dull as dishwater cinematically because the pleasure is exclusive, perhaps as big a reason for the decline in mainstream movie sex after the late ’80s as any of the other cited causes, like AIDS anxiety and resurgent moralism. But Fifty Shades goes all squishy when it contemplates BDSM as an art that involves inflicting and receiving pain, however interlaced with pleasure; the sensatory reality of it all is still a challenge. All of this, now that I think about it, might be largely irrelevant to Fifty Shades of Grey as a standalone work of cinema. For one thing, the film deemphasises the spectacle of transgressive kink almost to the point where it feels like the cherry on the top of the cake, as opposed to the book, where it was the cake.
Fifty Shades establishes its erotica bona fides quickly, beginning with the arch character names Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Ana is a lit major attending university in Vancouver, WA, and working part-time in a hardware store. When Ana’s roommate and pal Kate (Eloise Mumford), a journalism student working with the college newspaper, falls sick when she’s scheduled to interview Grey, Ana does her a favour and travels to Seattle to do the interview for her. Grey, a young but hugely successful tycoon in the field of something-or-other who’s going to be delivering a speech on their graduation day, stands ensconced in his soaring tower (don’t let us think he’s compensating for anything).
The moment he and Ana lay eyes on each other, something kindles: Ana, with her doelike eyes and crudely cut bangs worn like a protective helmet against the world’s interest, couldn’t be more different to the Aryan ladies Grey has on staff, which is perhaps part of the appeal. Ana’s intelligent streak sits at odds with a deliberate lack of worldliness—she’s a virgin essentially by choice, having resisted all overtures thus far, including from her photographer pal José (Victor Rasuk). Christian begins to insinuate his way into Ana’s life, visiting her workplace to buy lots of items that don’t quite make sense for home improvement, including cable ties and duct tape, none of which makes the penny drop for the clueless Ana. A rendezvous later over coffee is ended prematurely and confusingly by Christian, who sends her a set of Thomas Hardy first editions as an apology. Ana gets drunk and bold when out partying with José and Kate. She calls up Christian and insults him, which only proves a magnet that draws him to the bar. He sets his adopted brother Elliot (Luke Grimes) on Kate to keep her occupied, and intervenes self-righteously to give José an aggressive shove when he clumsily puts the moves on Ana before whisking her back to his hotel for a chaste night’s sleep.
After a few vulgar displays of wealthy generosity, Christian has soon swept Ana into his life, but then he introduces her to his dark secret: Christian is a BDSM dominant who wants a relationship with Ana, but only as his submissive who obeys a strict set of rules. The tension in the narrative comes in the uneasy suspension between Christian and Ana’s obvious and powerful everyday attraction and his resistance to the normal constitution of relationships. He tells her, with stern seriousness, “I don’t make love – I fuck – hard,” can’t stand being touched, and insists on sleeping apart from her. After making her sign a nondisclosure agreement, Christian gives her a legally binding contract—I’d like to know how he plans to enforce that over a woman whose total assets to risk amount to a Volkswagen Beetle and a set of used textbooks—that will define their relationship.
Quickly, however, some of his hard limits start to dissolve as he wrestles with his genuine, calming affection for her, even as Ana is required to start erecting her barriers. He confesses that 16 women have come and gone from his life, perhaps because they couldn’t hack it or, more likely, because they were only too willing to please Christian, who seems torn between the desire to corrupt and a need to find his way back to normal pursuits. Ana, after reacting queasily to a bit of online research, calls for a business meeting with Christian to argue over the specifics (no fisting, vaginal or anal, etc.), and successfully resists his seductive attempts just to prove she can. But resistance has its limits. Christian “rectifies the situation” by taking Ana’s virginity in a sequence that suggests sexuality filtered through high-class perfume ads. Then he introduces her to his “playroom,” his exquisitely appointed torture chamber outfitted with all the accoutrements the up-to-date, upstanding sadist might need.
In this scene, I felt the pull of something fascinating going on in Fifty Shades of Grey. Where the film plays as a jet-set fantasy with more wealth porn than anything other kind up to this point, the entry of Ana into the playroom had the potent whiff of entry into another, far more primal realm of experience that lies deep within and beyond the lifestyle fetishism. That feeling is exacerbated by Taylor-Johnson’s careful contrast between the visual scheme of the outside world, all steely hues and pastels, and the saturated reds and browns and blacks in the playroom, part Japonaise minimalism and part neo-Victorian nook, as well as the correlation and distinction between the hard-edged modernism of Christian’s favoured environs and the implements for inflicting pain on soft flesh in the playroom. It’s easy to dismiss the covert appeal of Fifty Shades because it is based in the simple, retrograde fantasy of women who want to be swept up by a paternalistic Prince Charming, but here I sensed that wasn’t quite the whole truth, that somewhere within all this fudge is an interest in the strange extremities of human desire.
In any event, the figure of the rich, remote, intimidatingly formal master (or mistress) with a penchant for arcane speech patterns is one of the key clichés of erotica. The appeal of Fifty Shades, and Twilight, too, with its self-restraining demon lover, lies in the acknowledgement both make of the ways sex is still far more dangerous for women than men, not the least of which is man himself, with both works pleasing on the teasing proximity of anxiety to stimulation. Fifty Shades aims to present outright what most other takes only offer tangentially or through heavily veiled metaphors. This blatant and unashamed approach, and the fact that Taylor-Johnson has crafted a bondage erotica film that seems set to be an actual blockbuster, makes me want to cheer it simply for being.
Moreover, Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have tried to craft a real film out of James’ infamously ditzy prose and narrative absurdities, tracing the tale as one of Ana’s growth from repressed college girl to a woman strong enough to tell her billionaire boyfriend to fuck off. Part of this serious intent, ironically, expresses itself through a certain level of self-mocking humour used to disarm before getting down to business. At first, the film plays as a toey romantic comedy with a kinky MacGuffin, constantly dropping wry, audience-goading in-jokes (that might well only work if one already has some idea what to expect from this) about what’s in store, woven into Ana and Christian’s duels of words and temperaments. Later, as the dance of desire becomes outright orgy, the tone shifts to one of dark, boding intensity scored to slow, thudding music. Probably the best scene in the film is Christian and Ana’s “business” meeting where they negotiate the specifics of the contract in a boardroom with low mood lighting and burnt-orange décor that suggests a rejected set for an ’80s Ridley Scott thriller, perfect setting for a sequence where the characters square off in tense verbal by-play that deflects their erotic shenanigans. A lot of terrible dialogue from the book makes the transition, sadly, though not without a certain wryness: “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” Christian murmurs at one stage. I heard a young woman laughingly chide her mother for chuckling at this behind at the screening: “This is serious stuff you know.” Some have said this sort of things points to the fact Fifty Shades’ strong female following is coloured with an ironic fascination, and I can believe that.
And yet Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades will never become a cult camp classic a la Showgirls (1994) or Mommie Dearest (1982) despite certain similarities because the film is handled with far too much straightforward finesse. Erotic filmmaking is a difficult proposition at the best of times, and with all the strictures of censorship and marketing upon her, Taylor-Johnson has been forced to be shy to a silly extent about some things. Somehow Fifty Shades manages to get to its end credits not only without a single glimpse of penis or even pubic hair (yes, that’s right, there’s more dick in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2007, than in Fifty Shades of Grey). The approach to the messiness of sexuality is absurdly naïve and prim by comparison with John Waters’ later works that sneakily managed to portray utter deviancy as commonplace whilst scarcely showing anything that a censor could get properly hot and bothered about. In fact, I wish Waters could have made this, but he would probably have had Ana and Christian finish up in bed with Kate, Elliott, Ana’s mother, and the Seattle Seahawks in the finale.
Yet Taylor-Johnson does create some effectively sexy moments, mostly of a vanilla variety, and a montage of stuff the couple get up to once the playroom is put to use, gathers real, if not particularly sensual, power thanks to the strong, rhythmic, trancelike cutting by a team of editors including Anne V. Coates, the editor of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)! Elsewhere, risibility strikes, like during the first sex scene when Dornan is required to slowly unbutton his shirt and reveal his ripped torso with wait-for-it relish: the image of Homer Simpson doing the same thing flashed into my mind, not the sort of epiphany from which many movies can recover. One of the problems with transferring erotica from page to screen lies in the fact that erotic narrative is rarely realistic, but rather a construction of arousal detached from normal limitations and references. In S&M fiction this problem is especially marked because it facilitates the role-playing so often key to the experience, telling tales of unholy pacts, enslavement, abuse, transformation, in which one person becomes the property of another, often in tales that look like horror stories from a slightly different perspective. In short, it’s usually a deliberate rejection of the morally instructive quality expected from artworks (not for nothing was de Sade’s Justine subtitled “Good Conduct Well-Punished”), and inherently anti-PC. Fifty Shades of Grey represents, however, an uneasy compromise between bare-boned erotic fantasy and actual drama. The drama had possibilities as far as that went: the story has a strong similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), as dark, marauding gentleman ensnares a lady he’s fascinated with and wants to dominate, albeit with Marnie’s own hang-ups and culpability removed— and, of course, Johnson is the granddaughter of Marnie herself, Tippi Hedren. The cliché must hold fast: female innocence versus masculine experience. Ana, for all the good work Johnson does in trying to portray her as an intellectual frustrated by the inability of her mind to conquer her body’s kindled needs, strains to be anything more than a one-dimensional Cinderella.
Another common trope of this sort of thing, perhaps best exemplified on screen by Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1978), and Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992), is that of a folie à deux that forms, combusts, and pushes to ever more dangerous and uncontrolled behaviours, entering an Oedipal whirlpool that might only touch bottom with death. Polanski’s film took the same essential plot to a fascinating, but potently nasty place as the older roué introduces his young girlfriend to increasingly intense perversions, only to turn her into a monster who reduces him to an impotent cripple and then makes him watch as she takes his place as destructive seducer. Fifty Shades of Grey initially mimics this structure, but eventually rejects it: it has no intention of losing control, and after all is said and done, doesn’t have any particular sympathy for the lifestyle it exploits. Taylor-Johnson doesn’t seem so much disapproving of S&M so much as James’ indulgence of the fantasy of wilful disempowerment, but the two are far too entwined in the way the story plays out. James annexed the idea Meyer plied so shamelessly, the idea of a transcendental, magnetic love that works something like animal imprinting and must have its way in denial of the good sense of the people beset by it—which is adolescent schlock, of course, but it’s hardly shocking to see it still has a place in our collective daydreams along with fantasies about sailing the ocean blue or sword fighting with Vikings. Taylor-Johnson, for her part, has tried to inject a little adult level-headedness into things and emphasise the degree to which the tale is a dance of attraction and repulsion. The idea of playing schoolgirl fantasy against problematic reality could have yielded fascinating stuff, but James’ source material is too in love with the initial posture of its characters to analyse the divide.
It could be said that what we do get is just a variation on that old schism—she wants love, he wants sex. Except that she really likes the sex she gets, and we’re told repeatedly that Christian feels unusually drawn to Ana in a manner that sounds like love and wants to be around her because he can feel her healing him. We watch a quiet wrestling match of wills with both Christian and Ana giving and taking. Eventually, however, Ana halts at the threshold of joining Christian in his kink. The degree to which Fifty Shades is actually a deeply square piece of rubber-necking becomes clear in time. Far from being a story of forbidden pleasures, it’s a shallow relationship drama, where the arguments over the demarcations of their union start to feel less and less like preludes to erotic deliria than a vision of the way modern relationships are negotiated enterprises. Although eventually we get some hot sex in the playroom, the bondage is pretty tame, enacted between characters who don’t seem to know they’re stick figures. Moreover, the shift from comedy of sexual manners to psychodrama that defines the second half is inherently weak, in part because the film has little psyche to dramatize, with no intention of spelling out the hints it’s given about Christian’s formative experiences. This might be for the best, because the hints we get point to the lamest kind of pop psychology: Christian was possibly mistreated as a child, ergo, he’s a control freak and S&M fan. There’s stuff about his uncomfortable relationship with his adoptive family, with Marcia Gay Harden earning an easy paycheque as his patrician mother, and a conversation about the mysterious older woman who initiated Christian into the BDSM lifestyle when he was a tender 15 years old, whom Ana dubs “Mrs Robinson.”
In this aspect of James’ tale, Taylor-Johnson may well have found her special mojo, considering that Christian readily recalls her conceptualisation of young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy as a natural-born heartbreaker whose own damaged personality will be cosseted rather than liberated by great success at a cost to the women in his life. But one major problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is that, like everything else these days, it’s been franchised to the max: James penned two sequels where this stuff gets worked out. This leaves the movie with scarcely any plot and without the kind of spiralling psychosexual lunacy that might fire things up. After a while, the story completely jams up, marking time with a pointless digression to Georgia, as Ana visits her mother and Christian follows her, and a sequence where Christian takes Ana gliding, replete with tedious thematic underlining: oh look, Ana’s lost her fear of flying. I’d like to hear what Erica Jong’s got to say about all this. The film cannot countenance either the possibility of Ana finding fulfilment cocooned in leather and kept in a box in Christian’s playroom, which would be one extreme of the fantasy, or the idea that she might become a domme herself, and one day turn the whip on Christian’s pasty ass, another extreme.
The film does reach a kind of conclusion, one that also suggests an inescapable recommencement, but also inevitably invites coitus interruptus quips, as Ana, frustrated with this eddying state they’ve found themselves in, gets Christian to try out his tastes at full force. Ana is shocked as she realises that Christian has a need that has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with transferring a deeply humiliated rage and sorrow onto someone else. This precipitates a break-up that forms the film’s surprisingly abrupt coda, which I found reasonably effective, as it suited Taylor-Johnson’s take on this fare; everyone else around me groaned in frustration, which is also understandable. It’s the old story. Boy meets girl, boy flogs girl on the rump with a belt a few times, boy loses girl. By movie’s end it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Fifty Shades of Grey has simply upped the ante on Cecil B. DeMille’s winning formula for servicing the audience’s id by letting it get a good gander at forbidden fruit, whilst also reassuring us that we remain superior and that our judgement and moral vantages are right and good.
Dakota Johnson is the film’s focal point and its real buoy. Johnson portrays the slow bloom of Ana, which stems from both resisting and indulging her temptations, with great skill. The scene where she manages to draw Christian into dancing for a few moments, and then breaks away from him to twirl on her own in gauche, girlish happiness, is the sort of moment that crystallises star careers; it’s such a pity that this moment shows up how facile and lugubrious much of what’s surrounding her is. Likewise, her subtle register puts across the key moments where Ana is confronted by just how difficult her new love life is to explain to others. Dornan made an eye-catching debut as the thinking woman’s stud muffin in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) where he played the titular queen’s lover Axel von Fersen. He’s competent as Christian: his regulation hard body is matched by the seemingly permanent half-smile affixed to his lips, which suggests no matter how dank things might get, it’s not so serious. But he’s the one left holding the bag here, because the film has all but neutered Christian: the sense of imperious entitlement and emotional numbness the character requires has been toned down as far as possible. Whilst this undoubtedly took some of the edge off the character’s most arrogant, intrusive acts that might look awfully like stalking from a less buff, charming billionaire, it essentially leaves that character without any bite and thus no real reason for existing. It’s easy to imagine Robert Pattinson in his David Cronenberg-ised persona from Cosmopolis (2012) as a perfect Christian, but casting him would surely have been too meta. The ultimate frustration of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s neither gleeful camp festival nor genuinely interesting tale of sexual gamesmanship, but stuck between the two. Much like its heroes, its own scrupulousness has doomed it to eternal dissatisfaction—at least until the sequel.