Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Biting My Lip: a review of Fifty Shades of Grey

In Film, Reviews on February 13, 2015 at 7:04 pm

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by Matt Boyd Smith

The first thing you should know about me and Fifty Shades of Grey is that I haven’t read the books. I don’t care if you have or haven’t. I don’t even care if you like them. This is not a review of the books or even a judgement about how absurd they may or may not be. I’m much more interested in the film version anyhow, because it will no doubt be a major event film for 2015, with box office tracking as of today (the film’s first day in theaters) pointing toward a probably $85 million haul over the weekend. But beyond the numbers, I’m interested in whether or not it’s any good (it’s okay) and whether or not it fulfills on any of the promises non-readers of the books would expect given the media attention (it doesn’t).

By now the story is well-recounted in the media. Mousy college graduate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) meets incredibly wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) whilst interviewing him for her roommate’s article in the college newspaper, a college of which he is an alumnus. During the interview and over the course of the next week, Ana and Christian become enamored with one another. Eventually, Christian proposes a relationship, bound by a contract, which makes Ana his submissive, he the dominant. Then things get kinky. Or so we’ve been led to believe.

The sad fact of the matter is that there’s nothing terribly kinky in Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s also a sad fact that the film downplays the stalkier angles I’ve read about being part of Christian’s M.O. in the novels. But let’s not dwell on that, I’m not here to discuss whether or not Christian Grey is a good human being or even a good male figure for women to infatuate themselves with (and in any case Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance argues that’s not that important a consideration anyway). Let’s discuss what everyone else has been talking about instead: the sex.

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Yes, there’s plenty of sex in Fifty Shades of Grey, and due to the ridiculousness of Hollywood, only Anastasia is seen in the buff, though there’s still plenty of beefcake on display during the scenes in Grey’s “playroom.” Are these scenes sexy? Sure. This is a film which has at least made an attempt to make the most of its inherent eroticism and the play on anticipation which is surely contained in its target audience. The real problem with this film is that there’s no eroticism in the scenes outside the bedroom, every ounce of it squeezed into the fleeting moments of riding crops and leather cuffs and nothing left to spare. Secondarily, the sex is not that kinky. Cinephiles with a keen interest in this stuff will no doubt be disappointed, for there is surely more BDSM pleasure to glean in Secretary (not to mention Spader to spare) or even the comedy Exit to Eden.

Anastasia’s lip biting drives Christian nuts, he has to have her, she gets tied up and he works it out a bit, then they have regular ol’ boring sex. I honestly can’t remember whether or not they ever had sex while Ana was tied up, but I don’t think so, and that’s an issue with the film’s portrayal of this stuff. The power relationship is totally fucked from the get-go, with Christian so obviously enamored with Anastasia that there’s not really even a reason for the dominant-submissive sex-contract plot to exist.

Seriously: it’s all flare, with minimal flogging or power-tripping. And anyway, the sex scenes make it obvious that Christian is just in love with Ana, but denying his emotions so he can hide a Deep Dark Secret. Which of course is what’s really going on. This is, after all, a romance targeting women; one that not only sees the “average” Anastasia blossoming into her sexuality, but which also imagines a powerful man with a dark past and “singular” interests might be changed into a willing romantic partner (with romantic being the operative word in that phrase). This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the story, or of its legion of fans, but more a critique of the film’s attempt—and failure—at portraying sex as a fully liberating experience that is healthy in many forms regardless of it’s non-conformity to our monogamous romantic fantasies.

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Outside of the sex, however, this film is minimally interesting to outright bad. It’s not quite campy enough to be enjoyable beyond a first viewing (unless you’re already a fan, of course), and it’s not sexy enough to take seriously outside of camp. The dialogue sounds as if it’s been lifted directly from the book by screenwriter Kelly Marcel with no attempt to make it less cheesy, once again proving that what reads as good dialogue can very well sound atrocious and unrealistic when spoken aloud. The acting by Jamie Dornan is stiff, though Dakota Johnson isn’t bad at all. The soundtrack is excellent, and the cinematography is fine, though the black-on-white-on-gray color scheme of the mise-en-scéne leaves a lot to be desired and gives a film which should be shot in a sumptuous color palette a rather boring feel. When there’s a random spot of red in one of the rooms or really any piece of the rather stunning wardrobe Anastasia wears throughout the film it made me long for something other than drab and shiny to look at elsewhere in the frame.

In the end, I’m not a convert. Fifty Shades of Grey is an exercise in erotic silliness that is better than I anticipated, but not necessarily any good. I was glad that the sex scenes were shot in a way that made them feel sexy, though I was disappointed that this Hollywood film decided to play it safe when it came to the real reason everyone will show up to the theater in the first place. I’m gonna say pass on the theatrical experience, but I have a feeling you already know whether or not you’re apt to see this one anyway.

2 out of 5 stars

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