Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Love Is A Battlefield

Year: 2015
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Fifty Shades of Grey is one of only two wide-release movies this year so far directed by a woman (the other is Selma, which was released in early January after bombing its Oscar-qualifying run in November). So there's that.

It's also the first movie ever to be based on a fanfiction. At least, the first movie not made in a Minnesota basement. It's true. E. L. James, author of the wildly successful smut trilogy, originally wrote it for the characters of Edward and Bella from Twilight, which explains the Washington setting, the romanticization of stalker behavior, and the deceased romantic lead.

Oh wait. This just in - the character of Christian Grey is, in fact, performed by a living man. Please excuse my mistake, it's a little hard to tell.

I thought it was a Weekend at Bernie's-type situation.

If you've been on the Internet for more than twelve seconds over the past couple weeks, you probably know the intricacies of the plot more intimately than your own name, but humor me for a second while I run through it. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a dowdy lit student who travels to Seattle on the behalf of her under-the-weather journalist roommate (Eloise Mumford) to interview business magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). After tripping into the room and crashing to the floor like she's in an X-Games adaptation of a Katherine Heigl movie, she piques his attention. 

As she fumbles with the pre-printed sheet of interview questions, he hands her a pencil of such prodigious size and girth that it stretches the limits of phallic symbolism, ripping the space-time continuum and sucking Jamie Dornan's penis into a black hole, preventing it from ever being shown onscreen. Of course Miss Steele sucks on the pencil, which she doesn't even need because she's using a recorder. Also she never actually asks more than two questions, requiring him to send his answers in an email. 

The reason I've spent so much time describing this one scene is that it's a perfect representation of the themes and motifs of the entire film. Namely: wildly misguided sexual imagery, the insipid non-structure of the plot, and a mysterious predilection for 90's technology. 

I mean, really. Anastasia is the last woman on earth still using a flip phone, and Christian sends her more emails than a Nigerian prince. I suppose we shouldn't expect technological realism from a 51-year-old fanfiction smut author who worked under the name "Snowqueen's Icedragon," but presumably screenwriter Kelly Marcel (of Saving Mr. Banks) has met actual humans that don't sport frosted blonde tips and Walkmen. It's a mystery far more vexing and intriguing than the wan drama that plays out during the film's overlong running time.

What are his motivations? What lies behind those eyes? Where did he get that jacket?

Anyway, Christian eventually reveals to Anna that he is a dom, the controlling partner in a BDSM relationship (which, if you're truly interested in the topic, is far better explored... well, anywhere else, but especially here). He wants her to sign a contract and become his willing submissive partner, turning over the decision-making in their sexual relationship to him and allowing him to punish her with flogs, ropes, and other toys from his "playroom."

The bulk of the film is about Anastasia testing the limits of her willingness to enter into this type of relationship with a man as aesthetically stimulating as Christian Grey. 

According to the philosophy of Russian Formalism, there are four categories into which the functions of human action fall: the practical (serving immediate use), the theoretical (serving general or unspecified use), the symbolic (serving in the place of another object or activity), and the aesthetic (serving no purpose whatsoever, existing for themselves for pure contemplation and perception). In order for an object to achieve true artistic value, it must first divorce itself from all useful attributes to attain the status of pure aesthetic. Considering that his character has no practical use (his motivations and desires in no way shape the plot), theoretical use (he has no value to other people, serving only his needs), or symbolic use (the idea of characters serving a "theme" is beyond the scope of E. L. James' literary prowess), he is an object of pure aesthetic. Therefore, Fifty Shades of Grey is a work of art. Just a little tidbit to bust out when you're cruising the bars.

The book (unfortunately the first in a trilogy) is notorious for two things. 1) Depicting a typical abusive relationship tarted up as vanilla BDSM erotica, and 2) terrible, terrible writing depicting a variety of superfluous sex acts (including something unspeakable with a tampon) sprinkled with phrases like "inner goddess" and "double crap." It's misleading, malnourished dreck, but it's provocative dreck and as such has a huge following.

Fortunately and unfortunately, the film adaptation tones down both of these aspects. In the plus column, Christian Grey is still a controlling, manipulative boyfriend, but the film shifts the tone a long way away from idealizing abuse. The downside is that, in turning down the volume on every single characterizing aspect of the book (especially the atrocious parts), they removed any particular reason to see it.

People came to see some godawful smut, dammit, not some watered-down trifle with little sex, vaguely cheesy but unfunny dialogue ("laters, baby"), and non-starter drama. I always expected there to be walkouts when I went to see this film in the theater, but not because it was so extravagantly boring.

The sex scenes are sparse, repetitive, and framed with absolutely no sense of danger. And when we're not watching Grey lightly spank Anna with his silk flog du jour (literally the only thing he does, despite his playroom wall looking like the dental tools from Little Shop of Horrors), we're feasting our eyes on leaden, conflict-free drama like "I'm going to visit my mom" or "let's fly in this impractical helicopter to an Ellie Goulding song" or "Rita Ora has two lines in this movie," all rendered through exhausting spinning camera shots.

"Let's have vague, thrusty, barely R-rated sex."

By far the film's biggest fault is its complete lack of sex appeal. Fifty Shades of Grey is almost anti-erotic, and I don't just mean in the "BDSM is unappealing to many people" kind of way. Johnson and Dornan strip down at regular intervals to hump like mindless, alabaster automatons going through the motions to make their sacrifice to the gods and goddesses of softcore bondage. Their lack of chemistry is downright appalling. Mother Theresa has had dreams more erotic than this film.

Now, let's be fair to Jamie Dornan - the character of Christian Grey is more or less impossible to play. This role could vanquish even the most accomplished actor. This man has no past or future, and no particular reason to be drawn to this specific woman. He is literally just a penis, which, incidentally, he is not allowed to show. It's a conundrum.

I want to make it clear that I'm not blaming him for the failures of this film as either a work of cinema or a tawdry piece of erotica. No, that buck should be passed directly to Hollywood, who robbed the source material of its already extremely limited appeal in an attempt to force it into a toothless, mass-appeal framework.

The whiteness! It burns!

But do you want to know the really sad thing about Fifty Shades of Grey? It's really not that bad. It might be a terrible adaptation of a terrible book, but that double negative means that it's at least something you can be capable of sitting through. It may be boring, unerotic, and bland, but it's not, like, the worst thing ever. Which, in some eyes (mine), would have made it the best thing ever. It's noncommittal in both directions, so it's even more completely useless.

The one bright spark to come out of this whole sodden mess is an unexpected talent: Dakota Johnson. She has a quiet spark that brings a bubbling humor to Anastasia Steele, anchoring the film in a decently pleasurable register for a surprising amount of time. I can honestly say that I would rewatch the film for the sole purpose of seeing her cast her spell, particularly in Anna's unforgettable drunk scene.

Oh, also there's exactly one impeccably shot moment - a meeting in which Anna and Christian discuss the contract, silhouetted through a soft red light that's unmistakably beautiful.

Oh, and they do a much better job of making Anna seem dowdy and average than they ever managed to do with Bella Swan. So that's something.

Look at me, I'm a human woman!

All things considered, Fifty Shades of Grey has enough to just barely squeak by as a non-hateable experience. But it's an utter failure at each and every feat it attempts. It's not offensive or sinful, as its puerile declaimers are saying. But it's also completely devoid of even the erratic, warped spark of its source material. One to miss.

TL;DR: Fifty Shades of Grey is non-erotic and dull, but spruced up somewhat by Dakota Johnson's lively performance.
Rating: 4/10
Should I Spend Money On This? It made enough. Leave the poor thing alone.
Word Count: 1563
Reviews In This Series
Fifty Shades of Grey (Taylor-Johnson, 2015)
Fifty Shades Darker (Foley, 2017)
Fifty Shades Freed (Foley, 2018)


  1. 1)God, you learned so much more in school than I ever did.

    2)Should I be ashamed that I kind of dug it? My thesis is that the conventional critical framework fails because it can't be dissected as a narrative (because the narrative that exists blows). The odd thing is that usually would make a movie suck.

    But I did kind of dig it, because I thought it was very well-made on a technical level (I also loved that weird lighting in the line-item scene), partly because I let go of my political objections (Jesus on the Cross, is this thing a classist piece of tripe, before you even get into anything else, and there is so much else), and partly because I thought Taylor-Johnson successfully managed to firewall the action from the raging tire fire of the "drama," so I was able to appreciate the sex in a pleasant, softcore way (you know... before it got weird).

    3)I also agree on Johnson. She probably saved it as much as T-J. (Good on you, for giving Dornan a get out of actor jail free card, too. I thought he did okay. There's a few bits, even, where I thought he was pretty cool, like the reaction shot to her "No" where you could see his body go into Emergency Shutdown Mode. Probably not depicted in the reportedly quasi-rapey book.) Christian's ineptitude as dom is rivaled only by Lee Holloway's cavalcade of third act bad dates in Secretary, of course.

    4)I read the tampon scene and "superfluous" is the single best adjective to describe it. I don't get it. I'm quite sure there's something you could do with a period and DS play, but simply presenting the physical necessity of removing a tampon for sex is... not it. I had to ask if this lady was for real. Which, of course, she isn't.

    1. I think Taylor-Johnson did a good job in making a film that you SHOULDN'T be ashamed of liking. It didn't grab me personally, but there's enough going on to appreciate it as a piece of fluff.