FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
Strikingly good in parts, but strictly for what it is—a movie that professionally captures softcore pornographic action in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
Written by Kelly Marcel (based on the novel by E.L. James, based on the novel by Stephanie Meyer)
With Dakota Johnson (Anastasia Steele) and Jamie Dornan (Christian Grey)
Spoiler alert: moderate (does it... matter?)
What is pornography? Awesome? Yes. But that's not helpful.
The ordinary definition of pornographic content, and I think it's a useful one, is any depiction of sexually explicit material, created for the purpose of inducing sexual arousal. Defining porno as a genre unto itself, however, I'd say that the signature feature, besides sex, is lack of a strong narrative. The purest cinematic pornography could be described readily as a documentary, documenting person(s) persuaded to engage in sexual activity on camera—with no formal narrative other than the chronological progression of time, and no formal conflict, either, unless "striving for an orgasm" counts as a classic dramatic situation (perhaps "Man against Nature"). Yet pornography, as a genre, is also marked by fantasy—general impressions generated by formal technique rather than conventional narrative, designed to induce arousal not by sexual depiction alone, but based upon projection into a fugue wherein, say, you get to ejaculate upon a woman's face along with fifty other dudes, or you get tied up and spanked, or a rich man wants to "fuck [you]. Hard." Whatever you're into. Go nuts. You have my permission.
When conventional narrative intersects with this most readily recognizable type of pornography, there's going to be tension, because conventional narrative demands conflict, and the conflict upon which narrative thrives is anathema to mutual sexual gratification. This is probably why there aren't very many "legit" movies about giving women facials, but there are a smattering of movies about extreme BDSM, since a lot of uninitiated people imagine there to be an inherent conflict between a dom and a sub. (The other reason is pragmatic: you can show a lot of BDSM play explicitly, without ever showing copulation, or even uttering naughty words. Here's a good a place as any to note that the vast majority of movies do not have pornographic content because the vast majority of people find watching sex with strangers uncomfortable.)
Fifty Shades made like $82 million this weekend. Travis Bickle inherits the Earth.
Of course there is always the inherent potential for conflict between any two people—especially if they're fucking, or want to fuck. We call narratives that deal with these conflicts "romances." And these can either be realistic—like Blue is the Warmest Color, a brittle story with pornographic content that, fundamentally, serves to underline why these two people like each other so darn much—or they can hew toward fantasy themselves—like The Notebook, which confines its attempts to generate bodily fluids to the pumping of tears from the eyes of tasteless people.
Regardless of what register a romance is operating in, it's subject to narrative criticism—from simple nitpicks to headier social issues. Applying the exact same critical lens to pornography is a complete non sequitur: all but the most reprobate anti-sex villains concede that pornos are (generally) inherently harmless fantasies that permit people to safely explore aspects of themselves.
This is a hugely long way of introducing Fifty Shades of Grey, but it highlights the film's biggest problem. I confess I have never read the novel, except for the part where Christian takes out Anastasia's tampon before he has sex with her (which I have never interpreted as a BDSM practice in my own life, but rather as a logical prerequisite—but, anyway, I digress again).
The problem is that Fifty Shades is beholden to two genres: the romance, because it is a giant event film with much of its runtime devoted to people talking and trying to gin up conflict and themes, and the porno, because—simply put—it is a porno. It is a potpourri of perennial fantasies, from the genuinely distasteful—the aristocratic shithead who would be a rapist if he just weren't so naturally magnetic—to the aw-shucks virginal—the shy, self-abnegating protagonist who is finally noticed by the hottest guy in the school/office/castle/world—to, finally, ones I might share—the actual fucking, BDSM and otherwise. (Predominantly DS, before you ask. Have you ever priced some of the professional-grade BD or SM stuff? But it's fun to watch.)
I guess you might have to look up some initialisms. Hope your mom doesn't find your search history!
Anyway, as a dom's fantasy, it's routinely pretty terrible, albeit with some pretty great high points. As a sub's, of being "broken," "against her will," it may have more merit, but only in fits in starts on that count too (hobbled, further, by the finality of an ending that we only know is not final because of outside information). But the important thing to understand is that it's pornography, with romantic trappings that range from the well-done to the horrifying. As a whole, those trappings arguably do Fifty Shades a serious disservice by introducing all the bones (not boners) for its detractors to chew on. On a generic level, however, it can be judged on one ground only—whether it touches its intended audience appropriately inappropriately. The book must've, after all, and since the film isn't near so full of fucking ellipses, it's better on that count alone (it does have one ellipsis, incorrectly used in a text message—which is the kind of occasionally-hilarious self-mockery the script and direction get up to).
That script is the story of Anastasia Steele. Because this is a porno, she springs into being with a small number of facts that barely register as "character traits"—she's an English lit major, clumsy, poor, a virgin, and her favorite food is her bottom lip—and she sets out to interview the local billionaire, Christian Grey, for her college newspaper. Grey is a "businessman," amusingly so—we learn far more about the day-to-day operations of Lord Business, and that movie was about anthropomorphized blocks. (But, hey, this is a porno.) Their interview is a stylized tete-a-tete about fucking, because pretty much the moment she stumbles upon the air and into Christian's boardroom, and he helps her up, they have already made that decision. In fact, it was decided before the opening credits rolled—and this is the last time that I will remind you that this movie is, at heart, pornography.
"Time to go to work at telecommunications!"
As you damned sure already know, and which the movie teases in a fun way, Christian is a BDSM enthusiast, in the way that Cole Trickle was a NASCAR enthusiast, it being the only thing he can do. But this will be news to Ana.
She is initially won over by Christian's affectionate, insane-person gifts, like a first edition of noted awful novel Tess of the d'Ubervilles, and also the fucking car. (I have generously decided not to police anyone's fantasy of being a very high-priced prostitute.) She is less won over by his insane-person mood swings, and his insistence that he "doesn't do the dating thing." (One is perplexed indeed as to what kind of relationship he considers ideal, and why he would bother paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for it, when just a few thousand would do, and without the backsass. But nevermind.) Following Ana's drunken night out with friends ending in a bizarre knight-in-shining-armor sequence for Christian—it seems to involve telepathy and (possibly) teleportation—she finds herself whisked away to his elegant bachelor's pad, and thereupon their relationship begins in earnest, first with a show of mild emotional vulnerability and then, of course, the paperwork.
At this point any claim Fifty Shades might have been making to being even a heightened, fantastical romance is surrendered. Instead, it veers into nonsense divorced from anything in the real world, including recognizable human feelings inherent to the characters. Instead it becomes a collection of erotically-charged scenes that exist primarily to either depict them fucking or depict them thinking about fucking. The criticism that it isn't a remotely realistic portrayal of BDSM is almost beside the point, as is Christian's invasive behavior, like when he just shows up in her house (that being an artifact, clearly, of when this was a Twilight fanfic). Obviously, no one in their right mind would attempt to push Ana like this, in what amounts to the first week of her first sexual relationship ever, and if someone did, it would have ended long before the second act even finishes (at least I would hope so). Equally obviously, any kind of fulltime submission regime opens up a barrel of issues. It's less obvious, however, that somebody might not fantasize about these things. So all's well.
Or it should be, but this is also where serious problems begin. Needing some kind of narrative conflict, they choose the wrong conflict (by my lights, the wrong fantasy, too). They pursue each into legitimately offensive territory. Instead of a focus upon Ana's burgeoning sexuality, it's almost entirely an extrinsic struggle over whether she can muster enough power over Christian to change his deviant proclivities—in these scenes, Fifty Shades could be a movie about riding motorcycles unsafely, for all it matters. Other times, it's all too clear that the BDSM is just there to lend a crypto-chaste kink framework to what could just as easily be about a boyfriend upset his girlfriend wants hugs but doesn't give blowjobs unless he whines and pouts about it (of which our good dom does a surprisingly great deal). If you guessed that this is yet another movie that pathologizes BDSM, you win no prize—you see, Christian was made a dom through abuse, partly because his mother was promiscuous and cruel (just like Norma Bates!) and partly because he leveled up after being repeatedly raped by a femdom (two, two, two offensive representations for the price of one!).
"Aftercare? What a bunch of hippie... dippie... baloney."
Now, for a movie that doesn't pathologize BDSM, I recommend: Eurotrip. You thought I was going to say Secretary, but I didn't (because Jesus Christ, are you fucking kidding me?). I recommend that only as a pretty cool movie. Like Secretary, Fifty Shades decides to be about a cartoonishly dysfunctional relationship, but whereas Secretary was genuinely interested in its characters' dysfunctions, here it reads as pure distraction—and given that Ana and Christian's crises are routinely resolved with Rich Person Date Activities, it is also deeply gross.
And that's the real pity of it all, for Fifty Shades absolutely shines as great softcore filmmaking. Maybe the greatest—who would know? When Sam Taylor-Johnson's directorial intent is to be titillatingly erotic (or, less often, but in well-chosen moments, goofily erotic), Fifty Shades is an ecstatically well-made motion picture. The BDSM scenes' editing is frankly amazing, propulsive and intense and sexy, without sacrificing clarity and only hiding what it has to; the lighting during the line-item negotiation is some phenomenal expressionistic stuff, playing it mainly for comedy, for it's plum obvious nobody would ever bother trying to read in a room that dim; and Fifty Shades has the best single shot (not that kind) that I've seen in any pornographic film, a wide shot featuring one of the single best uses of blocking-as-storytelling that I've seen in a long, long time. Even the acting is good. Jamie Dornan has the worst of it, but, God, don't blame him. Dakota Johnson is genuinely great, fighting with her whole body against a basic story that doesn't want Ana to have any desires other than to conquer Christian's silly old emotional distance. Johnson's so good she arguably grants the film a dimension of sexual awakening that is not present on the level of its text. Let's get this straight right now: in Fifty Shades versus the first Twilight, there are some comparisons to be made in the general unsoundness of the script—Fifty Shades is still much better—but in every single technical field, down to its superb sound mix (no, really), they are similar only in the fact both run at 24 frames per second.
I suppose it's somewhat faint praise to say that Fifty Shades is borne over almost entirely by its professionalism, and its willingness to quarantine its twin strengths of sexiness and playfulness from the contagion that infects the rest of the screenplay—or at least, until the very end, where somehow it actually works. I won't go too far against consensus: it's insanely problematic, probably only barely a good movie. It's the wrong story to go with the right imagery, but the right imagery is what a good movie's made of—and a good porno, that much more.