Sunday, September 27, 2015

Short Take: "Fifty Shades of Grey" (2015)

Given E.L. James' novel's reputation as "mommy porn," BDSM erotic fantasy best consumed through the privacy of a Kindle rather than letting others see the tawdry book jacket in your hands, Fifty Shades of Grey is awfully sexless. This isn't to say that there isn't any sex; there most certainly is, but it's presented in such a clinical, passionless way that it could hardly be called titilating. The film presents Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele's (Dakota Johnson) not as an erotic fantasy, but as a contractually-negotiated business arrangement, sex just being another clause in an attempt to establish a power dynamic. So perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that the only thing burning onscreen is the audience's patience.

For those unfamiliar with this story: Anastasia is a college student who is given the opportunity to interview self-made millionaire Christian, who is giving her school's commencement speech, for her school newspaper. They are enchanted with one another, and in their relationship Christian introduces her to the world of BDSM - including the aforementioned contract - which Anastasia is uncertain of.

And really, as far as narrative goes, that's it. A few sex scenes follow, along with some fights and reconciliations, but none of it seems to serve a purpose other than that's how stories work. It's hard to lay much of this blame at the feet of screenwriter Kelly Marcel, since she's mostly doing her best with  staying faithful to E.L. James's novel. James famously began this story as a work of Twilight fan-fiction that became very popular on the Internet, eventually changing names and circumstances into an original story that became a best-selling trilogy. And at times the story that translates onscreen functions like fan-fiction. Supporting characters are basically non-entities included because Anastasia and Christian aren't the only two people living in the Pacific Northwest. It's never explained what Christian's company actually does - other than he gives to charities, because he's a good guy - or what his role in the company is. And the central relationship is woefully underdeveloped, as the audience never has a reason to believe that these two would want to be together beyond that being what the story calls for. Most of the film's problems originate on the page.

That's not to say that there aren't some interesting things at play here. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson creates some pristine compositions, giving the film a visual cleanness that contrasts well with the supposedly-seamy material. And she elicits some valiant performances from her stars, a remarkable feat given the material they're working with. Dornan, in particular, is playing a character who is defined almost solely by the idea of dominance and mystery, and if he doesn't congeal those aspects into someone who is theoretically a believable human being, he at least deserves a special Oscar for uttering the line "I don't make love, I fuck" with a straight face. Johnson, on the other hand, at least is able to imbue Anastasia with personality and agency that the story is constantly trying to deny her. Johnson's performance and Taylor-Johnson's direction combine to create a fascinating friction that tries to reframe the story as Anastasia's repossession of her sexuality. The film's finest scene is the negotiation of her contract with Christian, and the entire scene gives Anastasia the upper hand, exerting her dominance over Chrisitian and shutting down his efforts to reclaim that position. Combined with an ending that literally gives her the last word, there's a feminist undercurrent trying to break through the narrative, but never given enough room to breathe.

That's a shame, too, because those are the best parts of the film. Perhaps if Taylor-Johnson had had more creative control, we might have seen, if not a good version of this tale, then at least a more fascinating and ambitious one. As it is, though, it's an awful film with a few interesting, and ultimately suppressed, ideas. It wants to titilate, but is ultimately flaccid. C-

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