The 90s are back at the cinema. At least I got that impression on my last excursion to the Multiplexx, where I went to see Fifty Shades of Grey in an official mission for The Supernaughts.
Sadly only in the shape of the two worst subgenres the decade gave birth to: Fifty Shades… is a continuation of the forgotten “Erotic thriller” genre (Basic Instinct, Sliver, etc.), while the trailer for The Boy Next Door (with Jennifer Lopez) that preceded the main feature, suggested the return of my personally most loathed subgenre, that has no official moniker (maybe it was too horrid to be named) but could alternately be described with “home invasion thriller”, “housewife thriller” or “white people/middle class fears thriller” (The Hand that rocks the Cradle, The Good Son, Sleeping with the Enemy, etc.).
But opposed to the latter one that has no reason to exist at all, the former one is a guilty pleasure of mine, as it at least offered great moments of unintentional hilarity and delightfully stupid entertainment.
Sadly, Fifty Shades cannot maintain that glorious tradition, apart from the “stupid” part- that is still fully intact.
The plot…. “plot”
Anastasia Steele (that’s not a porny name at all) is a young literature student, that bears all the characteristics that identify her as shy, slightly uptight and lovably clumsy according to the standards in the rule book for chick flick characters. Played by Sonny Crockett’s (or Nash Bridge’s) daughter Dakota Johnson, who is channeling both Kate Hudson (in any movie) and “Charlotte” from Sex and the City, Anastasia is still the most well-developed character of this movie, despite her cardboard-like qualities.
This cannot be said of Christian Grey ( played by Jamie Dornan, who looks like a slightly manlier version of Anton Yelchin), the mysterious young bazillionaire Anastasia has to interview. Grey really is an enigma. We are told what a busy and successful man he is, yet we neither get to know what he is exactly doing nor does he ever exude the aura of a business man. When he is interrupted while working on his laptop, it looks as if he just was seated there one minute before the camera started rolling, staring through the screen and randomly typing something.
Even more mysterious are his office and his apartment. Nobody ever seemed to have lived or worked there, they rather look like nondescript showrooms in a furniture store. Through the generous French windows we get a supposedly awe-inspiring panorama of the city, meant to illustrate Grey’s megalomaniac, yet underneath lonely character. For some reason the buildings and the sky look really flat though and there is nothing moving on the streets in the middle of the day. Probably this artificiality should symbolize that Grey is so lonely and alienated inside that he is living in his own universe that defies the conventional rules of time and space. Probably it’s just a crappy set with a badly photographed backdrop.
As expected, Christian and Anastasia immediately feel attracted to each other, despite no tangible chemistry whatsoever. But we are told many times how they cannot be without each other, so it must be true. Tell, don’t show. Of course there must be a drawback somewhere– Anastasia senses the tormented soul under Christian’s unapproachable exterior.
And really, one day he confesses to her that he is secretly into BDSM as a dominant, a behaviour that was triggered when he became a submissive for six years to his mother’s friend at the age of 15. Anastasia is not yet deterred though, she even lets him take away her virginity in an act whose reflection in the ceiling mirror over the bed is completely impossible considering circumstances like perspective, size relations and distance, but it takes place in Christian’s other-dimensional apartment so it does not have to adhere to the rules of optics.
A few tedious plot developments later, mostly concerning background stories about their families, Anastasia decides to accept Christian’s offer to be a “submissive on approbation” for an agreed span of time, because she wants to “save” Christian from his “curse” (sorry for the excessive use of quotation marks). Sidenote: The “bad boy” is for chick flicks what the “pixie girl” is for dude-centric indie flicks, he is just a catalyst for the character development of the protagonist.
On with the script: So Christian takes Anastasia to his secret playroom, the lamest SM- chamber I have ever seen in a movie, a far too bright red panelled bedroom that has a respectable selection of whips, handcuffs and riding crops, but is otherwise not too kinky at all. As if IKEA expanded its range to the design of the more murky sections of living spaces.
Finally some mild -very mild- BDSM action follows! Spurred by Anastasia’s apparent enjoyment of those practices, Christian tries to talk her into signing a contract that would make her his absolute servant, but a conflict evoked by his complicated character makes her rethink her decisions and she declines, leaving him thereupon.
And then the film is suddenly over. From a storytelling standpoint it is like as if the plot ended after the second act. For you nerds out there: It’s as if The Empire Strikes Back ended after the Falcon reached Cloud City.
The pain, oh the pain:
I guess by now it’s common knowledge that Fifty Shades originated as Twilight fan fiction and the influence of the YA novel vampire saga is still very palpable. The theme of the chaste girl/young woman who falls in love with the “bad boy” and tries to save him is still intact. The casual way the love story unfolds as if its tender beginnings, the very act of falling in love was more of a necessary evil that has to be gone through to get to the rewarding part, namely lazily indulging in excessive self-loathing and other hysterics. The defloration theme is also owed to Twilight– in both cases the female protagonist is a virgin till she meets the first guy that makes her all hot and wetty-wetty.
Even a few whole scenes from the Bella & Edward epic were directly adapted for this spank-happy derivate-film: Remember when Edward saved Bella from being smashed by a van with his superhuman powers? In Fifty Shades, Christian pulls Anastasia back before she gets hit- by a cyclist. I am not making this up. This is the film that will make Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, whose reputation as actors is still tarnished by their first collaboration, sigh with relief, as Twilight is the much better film than Fifty Shades.
Judging from the artistic and technical angle, the film is nothing to write home about. Aesthetically speaking, it’s just a catalogue brought to life, with the most boring cinematography imaginable. The costumes and sets are a nightmare of blandness, dreamed up by “Gap”, “Pottery Barn” and IKEA. You gotta know the target audience, right? None of the sets that represent the living spaces of the protagonists look as if anybody had ever lived there, none of the costumes look as if they had been worn before. Attempts to make Christian’s apartment look decadent for example are ludicrous and almost touchingly naive.
To add insult to injury, the score by Danny Elfman (!!!) is annoyingly intrusive, displaying the composer’s trademarked playfulness in the most inappropriate moments. I almost started missing the sexy pan flute excesses from the good old soft erotic movie times. Not to speak of all the pop music garbage that is cluttered over the whole running time of the film.
“I don’t make love, I fuck, hard.”
At this point, it’s almost redundant to lose any words about the quality of the script or storytelling. The minimalist plot- that is, as I mentioned above, incomplete- is drawn out to a mind-numbing length of 125 minutes. Extra padding is provided but not one, but two sequences of the two leads taking a trip in a helicopter and sailplane respectively, so Christian can show off with his pilot license while generic pop songs are blaring through the speakers. Well, it worked for Baywatch.
It would be unfair to judge any of the actors on screen by their performances in this clunker, because it is impossible to deliver anything within those confinements that would elevate the material. My best wishes to Johnson and Dornan, I hope this turns out to be the career-booster they certainly hope it will be.
I was also once again reminded why professional film critics take notes during the screening, because I cannot remember a lot of the (naturally bad) dialogue, just a few tidbits that display the film’s desperate attempts to look edgy, but end up in unintentional comedy.
“I don’t make love, I fuck, hard.” Gasp! Another scene that shows Christian and Anastasia negotiating the details of the “submission”-contract that define the sex acts she is willing to agree with, practices like “anal” and “fisting” are name-dropped. Edgy!
Speaking of, the film is incredibly limp in the sexy department. Nudity there is aplenty, mostly provided by Johnson. Dornan is mostly seen shirtless, but apart from a scene that has his bare ass filling the screen, he keeps his jeans on, even in his secret chamber, despite his character Christian telling Anastasia to “embrace her nudity” unashamedly. There are also some hints of male and female pubic hair- remember pubic hair?
Coming to the most important part, the BDSM, or better said the lack thereof. Yes, the BDSM scenes in Fifty Shades are so vanilla, they would not even be worth a mention if they were not the main selling point of this trashy piece. Anastasia gets blind-folded and her hands tied up twice and there are three scenes of soft spanking/whipping, the one at the end that is supposed to be the tipping point for her to leave him (oops, spoiler) is so milquetoast, not even leaving the skin on her butt reddened, it makes you wonder what the fuzz was all about.
Generally, the “BDSM” (gotta use those quotation marks again) practices are solely represented as a titillating foreplay for some good ole-fashioned boning.
The (bare, slightly bruised) Bottom line:
But now, after all those criticisms, comes the ultimate question: Is it even fair to judge Fifty Shades by those conventional standards?
Is it fair to rate a work, that apparently speaks to the hearts of millions of women out there, with objective measures? Fan fiction is probably the most sincere, upright narrative form in existence right now, producing wonderfully untainted, (and I mean that in a positive way) unreflected works that can give us an unfiltered look into the soul of the author. Chuckling about some of the weirder excesses of this genre is absolutely okay, but laughing at them with contempt is outright mean and stupid, it’s like laughing at the secret diary entries of someone else.
I myself have always been of the opinion that a movie that is relentlessly sincere can not only be forgiven its more bumpy parts or in some cases even its complete ineptitude, I actually think this roughness can add to the charm and “realness” of the experience and elevate it over any piece of overly praised pretentious arthouse-trash that hides behind his pseudo-intellectuality.
And isn’t the artist courageously exposing the utmost vulnerability with the confession of wanting to be sexually dominated in times when sexuality has become the battlefield of gender politics?
Well, there are exceptions. As I stated above, fan fiction can be very enlightening if it’s sincere. Yet, some people are not really in touch with themselves, so they fill the void where their personality should be, with superficial bullshit. When those people write books, their works reveal nothing but the bullshit they absorbed over the years like a sponge. No matter how deep one is digging, there is no subtext or real emotional core, it is the same narcissistic, soulless and disturbingly otherworldly crap underneath as it is on the surface. And Fifty Shades is full of shit. One of the main reasons for this may be the fact that E.L. James not only aped the plot of Twilight, but also emulated the narrow-minded, bigoted world view of its author, Stephenie Meyer.
Let’s ignore all the evidences on hand that suggest that James never came in touch with real BDSM, or never even did a minimum of research for Fifty Shades. If we classify it as a personal fantasy, her approach is kind of valid, if incredibly lazy.
Even with that concession, her literary effort is still crazily offensive.
James’ treatment of BDSM is double-edged and hypocritcial: Grey’s dominant streak is something that is actually tormenting him, his penchant for BDSM is just an expression of his psychological inadequacies, but he can be healed with the power of love. Yet, the BDSM practices are very helpful- in their very toned down, vanilla version- for Anastasia during her journey of sexual self-discovery.
Messages: 1. “BDSM light” does wonders if you wanna get in touch with your own sexuality. Or rather gives you the illusion you just did. This message is relevant for boring, uptight couples that are looking for something to spice up their uninteresting bedding routines.
2. “Real/hardcore BDSM” is evil! It is always triggered by a psychological defect and is preventing you from living a fulfilled life. It is also impossible to integrate those impulses into your personality in a meaningful way, as you will remain a constantly tortured soul. But it can be overcome by love and in the end you will be able to enjoy regular humping just as us normal folks. This message is relevant to practitioners of BDSM who can rightfully feel discriminated by that drivel.
While we are at listing things, here are two misconceptions about potentially positive side effects of Fifty Shades that need to be corrected:
1) Fifty Shades will not accidentally lead to sexual self-discovery. The works of people who have no insight at all, cannot barely provide such for others.
2) Fifty Shades will not help making “real BDSM” more socially acceptable, for all the reasons cited in the paragraph above. It just added “BDSM light” as another superficial element to the lifestyle chic that is propagated in “Cosmopolitan” and other chick mags.
Fifty Shades is to BDSM what Vanilla Ice is to hip-hop. What JJ Abrams is to Star Trek. What Limp Bizkit is to Heavy Metal.
In the end, Fifty Shades of Grey is just the old fable of the Beauty and the Beast, retold in the most dull and lifeless manner.
There is no pleasure and the only pain is the one the author of this review, Detective Dee, took upon himself to bring you the truth about this movie. He shall be remembered as a man whose willingness to suffer for his art is legendary.
PS: Quotation marks are the surgical gloves of the written word.
PPS: Ironically, the film was preceded by an ad for a famous brand (that was infamously featured in Back to the Future) whose erotic tone was surely intended to benefit from the Fifty Shades– hype, starring Charlie Hunnam, who was originally cast as Grey but declined. At the end of the day he made the better deal- same money, but less work and first and foremost, less shame. Oh and he could act besides Doutzen Kroes and not Dakota Johnson.