In Fifty Shades of Grey, the Sex is Good, but the Comedy is Better
Will these two come together?
Photo by Chuck Zlotnick
Even fans of Fifty Shades of Grey admit the book is a literary atrocity. Novelist E.L. James's erotic reveries read like the rantings of a drunk yokel — less "His firm hands cupped my breasts" and more "Holy crap! He's touching my boobs!" The story is simple: 21-year-old virgin Anastasia Steele is offered an opening to be cold-hearted tycoon Christian Grey's sex slave. Before they sign a contract — an actual legal document with addendum for buttplugs — they test the merchandise and each other's emotional and physical limits. The smartest decision director Sam Taylor-Johnson made when adapting the novel for the screen was to throw out half of it, especially her ingénue Steele's "inner goddess," a split personality that appears halfway through the book to grant the prudish college senior permission to screw the hell out of the hot rich guy. To get to the sex stuff, readers had to suffer through lines like "My inner goddess is dancing the merengue."
Onscreen, Taylor-Johnson and leads Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson seem embarrassed by the source material, as though it's an old high school friend they're forced to invite along to a fancy dinner. They're fine with the tits — it's their middlebrow creator they'd rather cover up. The film strips Fifty Shades of Grey to its essentials: a confident man, an awkward girl, and a red room rimmed with leather handcuffs. From there, Taylor-Johnson rebuilds. She constructs an erotic dramedy that takes its romance seriously even as it admits that Christian Grey's very existence is absurd.
Grey is physically perfect, unfathomably rich, and inexplicably obsessed with the guileless Steele, who, per rom-com tradition, first greets him while literally tripping over her own feet. Dornan plays him deadpan, his eyes as cold and appraising as those of a shark debating the fleshiest part to bite. Early on, asked about his hobbies, he replies, "I enjoy various physical pursuits." He never laughs, even at his own entendres, but we're allowed to laugh at him — even though Dornan seems so uncomfortable it's unclear if he's in on the joke.
Steele was deliberately written as a blank — a cheap xerox of Twilight's Bella Swan, herself a thin audience surrogate. Dakota Johnson breathes life into her in tiny motions: the way she leans in to Grey's neck or dances like a fool to Frank Sinatra. Her Anastasia lives in the real world — a place where Christian Greys are unicorns. Every time she looks at him, we see her wonder, "Who the hell is this guy — and why me?" She's a fantastic comedian with a voice like there's a feather duster lodged in her throat. When Grey growls that they can't fuck until he has her written consent, Johnson pauses, then croaks, "What?!" Johnson's Anastasia sees the lunacy of her situation. The only thing Johnson can't pull off is her character's over-dramatic name — she introduces herself as Anastasia Steele like an apology.
The irony of Fifty Shades is that Anastasia isn't passive. She's a power bottom. In the book, her resistance comes from being a stubborn prude. Here, Johnson finds a slyer twist: Anastasia can say no to Grey because she's not afraid of losing something she never expected to own, like a gambler on a winning streak.
Taylor-Johnson has a shrewd understanding of what turns women on. Take Christian's toys, all made of leather, fur, brass, and feathers, which line his sex lair like the accessories rack at Gucci. It works both as a display of wealth and skill — only a connoisseur would need four different foxtails — and as a tangible fantasy where we can imagine the weight and touch of every whip. She favors tactile close-ups that activate the senses: Dornan's knuckles gripping a desk, Johnson's lips nibbling a pencil, and four shots of him clicking her into a seatbelt before they zoom off in a private plane. Every shot is a subliminal suggestion, from the smooth parting of an elevator door to a quick insertion of Anastasia, at her job at a hardware store, coiling several feet of rope. The electric thrill of their first bedroom scene isn't Grey stripping off his shirt, but how he lunges onto the mattress and, without warning or apology, bites into Anastasia's toast.
Taylor-Johnson isn't apologizing either for shooting a sex-positive movie where the woman doesn't end up dead. (Ahem, Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence.) But James's Fifty Shades trilogy is at heart puritanical. The books are credited with introducing dissatisfied women to bondage. Yet the thrust of the series isn't Christian Grey awakening Anastasia to the pleasures of submission — instead, it's her convincing him that his sexual wants are wrong. She may temporarily thrill as he spanks her over his knee, but the book-three climax is a wedding and a baby. The series savors kink and stigmatizes it, implying Grey's only into BDSM because an older woman stole his virginity at fifteen and his mother was a crack whore. Confesses Grey, "I'm fifty shades of fucked up."
It's too bad that Taylor-Johnson can't give these insults a suspicious side-eye. She must mouth them as gospel, since his Mrs. Robinson–like backstory villain factors in to the sequels. As a result, the book and the film punish their fans. Yes, this naughty stuff is hot — but if you like it too much, you're sick.
Instead, to James the real aphrodisiac is that this billionaire bachelor grovels for attention from a schoolgirl who bends him to her vanilla wills by offering and withholding sex. She gives him her virginity, he buys her a car. That's not modern — it's shockingly retrograde. What, he didn't have sixty camels to offer her father? Under the covers, Fifty Shades of Grey is even more square than Twilight, where a teen girl begged her boyfriend to bone her and a werewolf fell in love with a baby. As Miss Steele would gasp, "Holy crap! Now that's perverse!"
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