By Preston Wilder
“Are you gay?” asks college student Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), interviewing reclusive billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the school paper. It’s a fair question, since he’s never been photographed with a woman in public – but Christian is not, in fact, fifty shades of gay, indeed he’s very interested in our heroine. Ana is a fey, bookish girl (fifty shades of fey?) but Christian can’t keep his eyes off her, and even offers her an internship in his company. “I don’t think I’d fit in here,” she mumbles; “I mean, look at me”. “I am,” he replies, all a-smoulder. Fifty shades of yay!
That question about his sexuality is interesting in another way as well – because such a question might’ve seemed implausibly impertinent, even for a movie, 10 or 15 years ago, but being gay has since become normalised, at least in some countries. The same may now be happening with S&M, which is Christian’s particular kink – the key to his “very singular” tastes – and of course the subject of EL James’ mega-successful series of novels. I haven’t read Fifty Shades the book (life’s too short) and Fifty Shades the film is pretty weak – but it’s fascinating as a phenomenon, teasing audiences with dangerous thoughts they’ve probably always avoided, albeit ultimately reassuring them that they were right to do so.
The Valentine’s Day release isn’t a joke: this is a film with only two characters (the rest of the cast barely feature), and the focus is squarely on their relationship – and, by extension, on relationships in general. Christian, like all men, fears commitment. “I don’t do romance,” he warns, and won’t even sleep beside a woman after sex. “This is the only sort of relationship I have,” he tells Ana, cold and hard and formal. “I need more. I want more,” she despairs, like all women; “Hearts and flowers?” he asks mockingly, like all men. (Happy Valentine’s Day, guys!) Still, Ana secretly hopes she might be able to change him. She pounces on the fact that his company helps starving Africans, despite his insistence that it’s just good business. “Your heart might be bigger than you want to let on,” she concludes – giving herself false hope, like all women.
This might’ve been a halfway-decent romantic drama if it were just about a cold-but-handsome prince and his spunky Cinderella. The problem is the S&M – a subject the film can’t avoid and desperately tries to downplay, like a crazy uncle you have to invite to Christmas dinner and try to disguise by seating him way down the table. Christian has a “playroom”, it turns out; “Your Xbox and stuff?” asks naïve Ana, but in fact it’s whips and cuffs and torture devices. He’s not really a commitment-phobe, he’s a control freak; he’s happy to commit to a relationship, as long as it’s on his terms – and as long as it involves a woman “willingly surrendering” to his handling and spanking.
This is a hot potato, way too hot for this tame Hollywood movie. Lars Von Trier handled it last year in Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, making clear that pain can be pleasure. That film showed everything, even the shocking red weals on Charlotte Gainsbourg’s behind. This one doesn’t show a single bruise, indeed it’s almost funny how judicious cuts and strategically-placed objects hide our heroine’s bum to avoid any awkward moments.
But the real problem is that never for a moment does it seem like Ana might be turned on by the thought of ‘weird’ sex; Christian’s proclivities are something she puts up with – an annoying male habit, like watching football. The other, related problem is that Ana doesn’t exist as a character (maybe she did in the book). She’s shy and virginal, almost pre-modern (she doesn’t even have a computer for most of the movie), but not in a way that defines her. We’re told that she grew up without a father, which might link up with some secret need for a strict ‘daddy’ – but in fact she was raised by her stepfather and they have a great relationship, so that’s also irrelevant. Christian is similarly vague as a character, alternately chilly and sensitive, wielding his whip one minute, playing piano the next.
The whole film is fatally confused. Is Christian a sadist because he’s damaged – due to his difficult childhood – or because it’s “the way I am”? Fifty Shades opts for the former explanation, the sequels being presumably when Ana will heal and/or cure him, so it’s not actually normalising this behaviour (unlike gay rights, which is based on the tenet that gays are ‘born this way’) – yet it also dwells on dungeons and “floggers”, as if to trumpet that it’s breaking taboos. In the end, this is mere titillation, a provocative surface hiding a soapy drama of a woman in the clutches of a hot-but-controlling man. ‘Grey House’ (Christian’s headquarters) looms up phallically, then later Ana nibbles on the pencil he gave her – and the film even cuts to a close-up of her lips wrapped suggestively around his pencil. How lame is that? Fifty shades of lame.
DIRECTED BY Sam Taylor-Johnson
STARRING Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle
US 2014 125 mins