Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey is total trash. Noble trash. The amusing kind of trash, actually. It’s Lifetime network tantalization coming across as cornball trash. It’s “thank heavens there’s a certain degree of consent, care, and conscientiousness in the face of a potentially disastrous concept” trash.
In other words, here’s that naughty, little sex novel (sorry, repurposed fan-fiction) you heard about, the one that netted its author $80 million and counting. (I called paperbacks like these “Nana’s closet books,” growing up.) And now it’s here, penetrating theaters as a hot adaptation and possible franchise starter. In simplest terms, it’s a Beauty and the Beast scenario. The beauty is Anastasia Steele (the tired-eyed, plainly attractive Dakota Johnson), a college senior. She’s bland, she speaks in whispers. She gets really bad lines like, “I have GPS and a 4.0 GPA.” She drives an old Bug, too. She’s an innocent who might not have the emotional/sexual intelligence for what’s coming.
That’s because what’s coming is one big, nervous, collar-tugging campus newspaper interview with the enigmatic, affectless, predatory young billionaire beast Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). He wants Anastasia. Badly. By any (legal) means necessary. Dornan’s accent is muddled, and Grey’s motivations are weak, but the guy is alluring (read: hunky). After some initial teasing, taunting, and odd courtship, it turns out Grey has a playroom full of Lover’s Lane purchases. He’s into BDSM and hounds Anastasia into being his submissive. That’s bondage & discipline, dominance & submission, and sadomasochism for all you prudes out there; I had to Google it myself. Good lord, what has E.L. James done? Seriously, this is a two-hour “will they/won’t they” drama centered around a consent contract and Grey’s dauntless need to tie Anastasia up and spank her. Who knows what hijinks an unnatural-looking couple can get into?
Such melodrama over sex and love. What happened to the Netflix marathons, a little too much wine, and playful patter? Anastasia wants that, but Grey wants to blindfold her and spank her and dominate her. However, given that these two never speak more than 10 words at a time to one other, it’s no wonder that Grey and Steele spark most in the bedroom.
As a mainstream sexpotboiler, Fifty Shades of Grey could be worse than it sounds. Yes, the main thrust is that Grey is a guy with wealth and power that’s into kinky, non-normative bedroom stuff. Statistically speaking, it’s not unheard of for wealthy businessmen to be into the lifestyle. It’s a power and control thing. It’s also something you don’t see every day: adult, erotic, non-pornographic entertainment in mainstream theaters. This could have starred Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger in the ‘80s and had the same amount of hubbub.
To that end, Fifty Shades mostly delivers as the curiosity it’s being sold as. In fact, it’s even a little entertaining, what with all the lip-biting, pencil-chewing, and rain as a metaphor for sexual stimulation. For all the intensity of the scenario, the movie’s almost fun.
In 1970, Terry Southern released Blue Movie, one of the funniest novels ever written and one very specifically related to this movie. It’s a spoof of Hollywood taboos with a Bergman-esque art house director helming The Faces of Love, the first major motion picture feature to include un-simulated sex. Southern makes it clear that there’s hardly any art to it, that it’s just a bonkers marketing pitch. Same here: Star-crossed lovers tested by one’s fetish for whips, chains, and being a leather daddy.
Famed artist Sam Taylor-Johnson treats the concept with courtesy and care, trying her best to keep an even keel between the tongue-in-cheek (“I Put a Spell on You” as the opening number) and the tantalizingly tawdry (a great deal of carefully constructed nudity and intimate lighting). Every shot’s a Vanity Fair cover, all the nudity is in respectable taste, and the sex, while conceptually scary, is modest for the most part. It’s even non-judgmental about the curiosities of others.
Is this a worrisome work about a naïve young woman’s sexual abuse at the hands of an older man, as many have said of the source novel? Not necessarily. It’s not about provocation, romance, or even arousal. It’s about gettin’ freaky with it. It’s about the compatibility between two bland, smokin’ hot people. After all, “I want to fuck you into next week” isn’t Shakespeare, but at least it’s candid.
A final note: What gives with the movie industry’s lack of equity in full-frontal nudity? We’ll let Taylor-Johnson off the hook, as she’s going for something evocative in the face of extremity, but Dakota Johnson exposes herself entirely while Dornan is relegated to suggestive insert shots, often while wearing a pair of torn Abercrombie jeans. We’re all adults here, and we’ve all seen enough reels of naked women to incredibly mixed ends over the years. It’s unfair in this day and age. You want a shocker for your sexy film? Go for the full monty.
Artwork by Kristin Frenzel (Buy Prints + More).