“The Worldwide Phenomenon Comes to Life!” exclaim the deceptively demure promotional posters coyly heralding author E.L. James’s erotic bestseller-turned-Valentine-baiting-film Fifty Shades of Grey.
“Life” is not a word anyone will associate with this turgid, alienating mess. How a story about adventurous and explorative sex can be rendered so tediously boring yet aggressively misogynistic deserves special recognition in some dilapidated museum of truly terrible films.
Bodice-ripping romance novels have always been a staple of drugstores and airports. Based on Twilight fan fiction (yes, actually), James’s novel invigorated Danielle Steele with some bondage and coined the rather unfortunate label of “Mom Porn.”
Misleading labels aside, the popularity of the book is a strange dichotomy. It at least serves as a potent reminder that your sex life doesn’t end once you reach middle age, but the story within is so regressive and abysmally written.
James’s writing is peppered with priceless gems such as “He smiles, then strides with renewed purpose out of the store, slinging the plastic bag over his shoulder, leaving me a quivering mass of raging female hormones.”
The prospect of seeing some sex in the cinema was an exciting one, having endured what feels like years of totally sexless Marvel films. At the very worst I was hoping for something akin to Paul Verhoeven’s notorious “disasterpiece” Showgirls — a sexual farce that we can all revel in pointing and laughing at.
Fifty Shades of Grey is much worse, right down to its rotten misguided core. If you seek a truly erotic film made for women by women, you’d do much better with Catherine Breillat’s exquisite Romance. If you seek mere titillation, you’d do much better with actual pornography.
Things begin amicably enough with Annie Lennox’s soaring rendition of voodoo standard “I Put a Spell on You” as we glide over the gloomy Seattle skyline. Athough the bulk of the film was actually shot in Vancouver, as indicated by several signs which read “Welcome to Vancouver” (continuity editing at its most ham-fisted). The perpetually grey clouds and skyscrapers milk the visual puns for all they’re worth.
Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson, dead ringer for her father Don), a mousy and repressed English Lit major, is on her way to interview the mysterious billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her school paper. Grey has ties with Ana’s school and acquired his wealth in telecommunications or something.
Their initial meeting is charged with sexual tension and a deep mutual attraction. Allegedly, sparks fly. Alas, the stars were evidently cast based upon their physical attributes and not their compatibility — this is a spectacularly charisma-free endeavour.
The much-discussed love scenes famously had to be re-shot several times and are still little more than soft-core blocking. Yet, both actors have become instant stars due to the high-profile curiosity swirling around the film. Will Dornan become a genuine leading man, or end-up as a shirtless extra in “Magic Mike 3: The Day Shift”?
What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game of “dating”, with Grey exuding his intimidating and controlling grasp over the situation while Ana whimpers with gratitude. Wielding an array of expensive vehicles like cudgels to impress naive women, Grey, the obnoxious playboy, is written as the epitome of male physical perfection and Dornan doesn’t disappoint. His aloof beauty and cold affection entice Ana further into his guarded inner sanctum.
When the time for intimacy comes, Grey plunges the virginal Ana into a world of rigid contracts (a churlish metaphor for marriage?) and dominance and submission. Grey shows his playroom to Ana. Whips, chains, and leather cover every surface. Ana asks “Do women do this to you?” Grey drips back “I do this to women.”
BDSM is about trust and utter consent, which is what makes it safe as well as sexually rewarding. In the film, it is portrayed as painful and grossly manipulative, and Grey as a sexual deviant. That Grey’s “unusual” appetites are a result of traumatic childhood abuse is problematic, lazy, and continues to marginalize a largely misunderstood practice. In a third act tantrum, he blurts out “I’m fifty shades of f***ed up!”
Bullied and coerced far out of her small comfort zone, Ana acquiesces to Grey’s total domination.
“What do I get in return?” Ana asks. Grey responds with “You get me.”
The dynamic glorifies classic tropes of an abusive relationship. The pair frequently make references to doing things in a manner more befitting of a normal couple. And this is what is most upsetting: the normality of their toxic relationship.
A woman living in fear of her abusive partner is far from uncommon. Of course domestic violence affects both sexes, but here it is being sold as a fantasy for women to aspire to. It inadvertently addresses the necessary conversation of “Why doesn’t she just leave him?” Intimidation and manipulation are potent, ugly forces. Stalking and emotional battery are also given sexy veneers.
Driven to her absolute limits, Ana finally walks out on Christian Grey after a series of false attempts. A harsh blackout ends the film here, which would have been a great statement until you remember that there are still two more sequels to endure — the third installment arriving with the odious title Fifty Shades Freed.
We now live in a cultural climate where men in power are finally being taken to task over their grotesque exertions of authority and abuse of weakness. As the allegations against Bill Cosby continue to mount and the trial for Jian Ghomeshi looms closer, a film celebrating these themes is incredibly irresponsible.
It is sad and exhausting to have to argue that these systems of power are tangible. If you’re skeptical that these dynamics exist, it’s because they don’t affect you and this is what the notion of privilege is about. Instead, we should support the victims brave enough to come forward and share their experiences.
A number of grassroots campaigns have urged potential audience members to donate the ticket price to a local women’s shelter, instead of supporting this transparent tripe.
Fifty Shades Of Grey – Official Trailer
(All photos courtesy of Focus Features)