It’s really easy and wrong-headed to slam romance movies for being cheesy or stupid or overly simplistic. But as with every genre, sometimes an entry is just bad. Such is the case for the oft-derided Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ll admit, my hopes were not high when I sat down to watch it, but for a movie written by women, both at its source and in screenplay, directed by a woman, and distributed by a studio with a female chairperson, it completely misunderstands its audience… and human interaction in general.

 

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Writer: Kelly Marcel, based on the book by EL James

Key Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan

 

In Short

Anastasia Steele, an English lit student living in the Pacific Northwest, has to interview Christian Grey for a school project. She trips walking into Christian’s office, waffles the interview, and somehow manages to capture his attention enough to get him, a CEO with a giant media conglomerate, to cancel his following meeting to spend more time with her. He continues to pursue her while simultaneously saying he’s not romantic or interested in mushy stuff. It turns out, he’s actually really into being a dominant and wants Ana to be his submissive, living at his house and following his orders, including going to play in his weird little red room whenever he desires. Anastasia isn’t super comfortable with this arrangement since she’s never had sex of any sort, let alone kinky sex. So he promptly remedies that, and then draws up a contract of limits and rules for their relationship. They negotiate, but Ana never signs. She gives the relationship a test-run, moving in with him and trying the submissive thing, but when he punishes her by spanking her with a belt, she decides it’s too much. She’s fallen in love with him, but it’ll never be reciprocated, so she leaves.

 

As Cinema

In general, a story should have a beginning, middle and an end. If it does not, then it at least requires some sort of intention for existing and for presenting itself in a particular place or time. There should be something driving it. Fifty Shades of Grey has no particular engine. Christian, shrouded in mystery, has no clear motive for his obsession with Ana. Ana, swept along for this ride, expresses no particular opinion or any interest in forming one until the very end, when it’s too late and all audience interest has faded. The dominant/submissive sex, the big draw in the books, is oddly shot, pulling punches and obscuring anything remotely erotic. The whole film feels utterly pointless.

 

Dakota Johnson, who was particularly charming in both Ben and Kate and How to Be Single, gives her all trying to bring cardboard cutout Anastasia to life. But she lacks any sort of chemistry with Jamie Dornan, so all her hard work is in vain. In fact, Jamie Dornan lived up to John Oliver’s ridiculous “sandwich bag filled with iceberg lettuce” assessment to a T. #NotmyChristian indeed.

 

The DP and colorist did a great job of creating a color palette that tried to communicate something interesting, but Sam Taylor-Johnson chose to make the most perfunctory version of this film. There’s nothing creative about any of her choices, nothing to give that sweeping scary feeling of falling in love with someone wrong for you, and nothing to recommend Christian beyond his taste in ties. The sad thing is, in the hands of someone with a vision, the source material is raw and workable enough that there could have been something here — an interesting erotic adventure or a dysfunctional romance by way of psychological thriller. Instead, it feels like it’s there to set up the plot of sequels.

The Horror

The sex scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey look like they were shot for men. Everything about them is so misguided and disappointing. It’s a movie about consensual dominant sex, so it’s walking a tightrope, and it falls without a net into some deep stupidity. Romantic movie sex scenes are about wish fulfillment for the audience. In an audience of women, it’s no good to focus on endless shots of Ana’s nipples (so many nip-shots!) while Christian gets relegated to background noise. These should have been moments for character building, particularly for him since this is his element and his world, and instead we’re stuck with a pseudo-male gaze with cutaways to Ana’s face that tell us nothing. She’s new to this world, so her responses tell us nothing since her character has no particular opinions and changes wildly from submissive to sassy depending on the needs of the scene.

 

The way the sex scenes were shot, they might as well have been reading from Jamie Dornan’s nudity clause. He does not have enough personality to warrant hiring him if he’s going to be so picky that they can’t even get a proper ass shot. It’s endlessly frustrating, especially from a movie that came out in the same year as the beautiful and altogether too-short sex scene from Crimson Peak. In the hands of a more creative director and an actor with something to offer, there could have been creative workaround, but it seems even the people making this movie felt it was a cash grab.

 

Not being terribly familiar with the source material, I don’t know how important Anastasia’s virginity is to the plot. But here in the film, it felt shoehorned in. It’s needless, but in a movie with no purpose, unsurprising. It’s ham-fisted, patronising, and gross. It turns Christian into a complete creep whose fetish is grounded in debasement rather than pleasure, which contradicts everything else he’s said before. By contrast, in Jane Eyre, Rochester’s focus on Jane’s purity is not just sexual, but spiritual and philosophical. It’s still not right and a little creepy, but it creates a sense of who he is that is consistent with everything else we’ve seen. It gives him reason to pursue Jane, and it forces the plot to change him so that they can be together as equals, giving the story purpose. If the Fifty Shades filmmakers had taken the source material and injected it with some sort of engine, this is an idea that could be explored. For instance, Christian’s first sexual experiences seemed to damage him. He is perpetuating that damage in Anastasia, unable to properly express his feelings for her. See, it’s easy? Sadly, there is almost no creativity put into Fifty Shades beyond finding ways to insert Beyonce covers for mass marketability.

 

It’s a shame — for better or worse, Fifty Shades has a huge fan base, and it’s not often women get to see their sexuality explored on film. In the hands of a team that found a way to respect the source material, it could have been something. Instead, we got a movie without a proper sense of purpose that forces its audience to meander in hopes that they’ll pay for a sequel. This is franchise and romance film-making at their very worst.

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