I went to see Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend. Or more accurately I was taken to see Fifty Shades of Grey by the woman in my life. I wasn’t given much choice in the matter, from the moment the first trailer dropped it was clear to me that I was going to see this film whether I wanted to or not. I can’t say it was something I relished. I don’t consider myself a prude, but sexually explicit films in public scare me.
I can remember getting three people from the front of the ticket queue at the Edinburgh Film-house for a screening of Ai no korîda aka In the Realm of the Senses and bottling it. In that case the picture’s notorious censorship history and the prospect of a harrowing genital mutilation sequence just got too much for my fragile male psyche. I did eventually see Nagisa Ôshima’s film some years later, in public at another arthouse, and it’s a beautiful masterpiece of erotic drama. Still an entire row of people got up and walked out in disgust during that screening. I chuckled as by this time I’d become a rather more battle hardened (if you will excuse the term) voyeur of explicit art films – standouts being Kirby Dick’s extraordinary documentary Sick: the life and death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist and Jörg Buttgereit’s outrageous Necromantik (I may be pushing it a little calling the latter an art film).
Quite honestly, sexually explicit films outside of the realms of pornography are often quite boring and extremely anti-fun. In the classic art house sex film, no one is having a good time. Betty Blue ends up insane. In Last Tango in Paris Maria Schneider has sex somewhere more uncomfortable than the back of a Volkswagen (Matthew Vaughn might think that act empowering, but I doubt he’s tried it). In Nymphomanic, the audience endures four hours of mechanical grinding and genital misery only to get a weak joke in place of a money shot. Frankly, I’d rather watch a triple bill of Russ Meyer films where people at least seem to be having some fun.
Sex in mainstream narrative cinema is rarely integrated into the narrative. Take almost any example from the erotic thriller genre of the nineties and cut out the sex scenes, you would still have a perfectly functional narrative. Basic Instinct still makes sense as a suspense thriller without the occasional sex scenes. Even the hacked up TV versions of the multitude of straight to video Basic Instinct knock offs by directors like Gregory Hippolyte were roughly comprehensible back in the day Channel Five used to show that kind of thing.
All of which is a round about way of saying that I wasn’t really looking forward to Fifty Shades of Grey.
The movie is based on the first in a series of erotic potboilers by E L James (now the J K Rowling of genital clamping) that began as Twilight fanfic (let’s not get hung up on that) and became a publishing phenomenon. So successful were these books that a film adaptation was inevitable. Such was the fan interest that in the adaptation that every detail of pre-production, director speculation and casting was pored over and debated online.
Author Brett Easton Ellis wanted to script an adaptation casting porn star James Deen as the male lead, fans petitioned for television actors like Vampire Diaries’ star Ian Somerhalder or White Collar’s Matt Bomer. Charlie Hunnam seemed to have the part, but then dropped out either due to nervousness over the sexual content or because he wanted to rewrite the script, depending on which rumour mill grinds your oats.
In the end, the directing gig fell to photographic artist Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr Banks). Avoiding star names, the lead roles of billionaire bachelor Christian Grey and sexually inexperienced ingenue Anastasia Steele went to relative newcomers Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson. Dornan is best known for playing a serial killer in the BBC tv series The Fall, and Johnson is (was) best known for being the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith.
The plot is relatively simple, Anastasia Steele is sent in place of her flu-ridden flatmate to interview business leader Grey for her university newspaper. The somewhat dowdy and clumsy woman seems to catch the interest of the wealthy (and seriously ripped) Forbes Magazine style icon, and a romance ensues. The complication being that Grey is a dominant sadist with serious control issues and a fear of intimacy who wants Steele to first sign a non-disclosure agreement before introducing her to his red velvet lined sex dungeon. Oh, and she’s a virgin.
Taylor-Johnson and Marcel have wrestled the pulpy unpromising source material into a rather decent slice of glossy entertainment. In this, they are aiding greatly by stunning cinematography from two time Academy award nominated Seamus McGarvey, and even more by a terrific performance by Dakota Johnson. The film is often preposterous and could use a bit of tightening up in the editing department, but it’s also often witty and mildly subverts the more retrograde sexual politics of the novel by turning alpha-male Christian Grey into a bit of a putz.
I didn’t find the movie particularly sexy and despite the BBFC warning rather hysterically of ‘strong sex’ it isn’t any more explicit than the glossy erotic dramas briefly popular in the eighties (9½ Weeks, Wild Orchid, Two Moon Junction). The much discussed BDSM elements are really window dressing, often hilariously so, such as a scene *SPOILER WARNING* where Steele is warned to prepare for the worst. Only for Grey to suddenly pull out a feather duster and start tickling her bum. An act he performs with remarkable solemnity. The sexiest scene in the film is a mock business meeting between Steele and Grey in which they sit in classy formal wear discussing clauses in the contract Grey has drawn up for his submissive. “Clause 13, item 7… what exactly is a butt plug?’
Of course there have been articles appearing interviewing people from the BDSM community ridiculing the film’s accuracy, but these are no different than the articles from outraged musicians upset with Whiplash. Fifty Shades of Grey is no more about BDSM than Jaws is about a shark.
This movie is all about her (that is Anastasia Steele). Her pleasure and self discovery are the focus of the story. While Steele is supposed to be the submissive one, she spends almost the whole movie stringing an increasingly frustrated and desperate Grey along as she vacillates about signing his ridiculous contract. Rather than a sadistic Rottweiler, the supposed dominant is more of an eager labrador puppy eager for mistresses’ treats. It’s all rather delicious.
What Fifty Shades of Grey really is, is a rom com with a pinch of spice. But what makes this rather tame and inoffensive film actually a little bit radical is the way in which it targets a female audience like a heat seeking missile. The audience was 90% female at the packed screening I attended in a suburban Surrey cinema. Any men there were accompanying wives and girlfriends. There were no solo males to be seen.
As the film played the men sat meekly while the female audience reacted with vocal delight to the onscreen action, often laughing with it, often laughing at it, and at one point *SPOILER WARNING* collectively hyperventilating at the merest hint of a quarter centimetre of Dornan’s penis being exposed.
It was a complete hoot. This is a film by women, for women, and men are invited so long as they sit still and shut up.
If this sounds condescending, I apologise as it shouldn’t. The film is no more ludicrous than many action films aimed at men, and just as most of the audience of a Jean Claude Van Damme movie do not merely accept the onscreen action at face value, neither did the Fifty Shades audience act like it was framed and hanging in the Louvre. Although frankly as gorgeous as it looked it would hang there quite nicely (more than you can say for Cyborg).
Ultimately the film is fantasy, and a particular woman’s fantasy of taking a man and changing him through the power of love. I found it quite indecently entertaining.