Let’s call Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie adapted from the blockbuster “book” that turned mere coffee klatsches into mornings of parallel female masturbation, a “singular” experience. And no. This is not down to the famous peccadilloes of its antihero, Christian Grey. Honestly, this film is to BDSM as The Constant Gardener was to gardening. Which is to say, insufficient dirt. I mean. The sex. It’s not very good or especially copious and whoever forced the achingly hot hips of Dakota Johnson into several unflattering pairs of what I believe are called “cheekies”, which look to be made from a faux-lace the approximate texture of aggregate gravel, deserves to be banned from quality underwear for life. Ugh. Haven’t these people heard of Agent Provocateur? Why is she wearing all of a five-for-$30 pack from Cotton On? This is FANTASY, people, and I expect to see the destruction by litres of semen of undergarments I could not afford without the sale of an organ.
So let’s get the horn assessment done at the outset: this film did not prompt my own vagina — or, as author E.L. James would prefer, “the deepest, darkest part of me” — to the merest widening. Not. One. Twinge. And, yes, I know my libido can make no claims to universality, so I asked my friend, A, who is a former professional dominatrix and, in her own words, “a terrible slut who can be prompted to climax by the merest tickle”, if she had felt anything. “Just the need of a drink,” she said. I asked the woman behind me, who answered me “Are you a critic?”. When I answered yes, she said: “I feel nothing but boredom. Tear this fucker to shreds.”
Of course, I had attended this premiere with that express intention. I have never enjoyed anything, not even quality sex, so much as I have the exercise of spanking the piss out of the Fifty Shades trilogy. Over some 10,00 published words, I have urged anyone who masturbated to sentences like “I can’t wait to be inside you, Anastasia Steele” to seek immediate medical aid and a remedial copy of Strunk & White, and I have loved it. And so, it is with great personal regret, and sincere apologies to the disappointed lady who sat behind me, that I find myself unable to replicate such public revulsion.
And it is this that makes the movie as “singular” as Christian Grey’s tastes: the movie is disappointingly tolerable.
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Actually, visually, it is quite good. OK, very good, save for the underpants. We may not find the graphic vocab of Sam Taylor-Johnson particularly erotic, but it is so beautiful and very current in its profuse reference. We have the diffident blue filter of the book’s sexy sine qua non, Twilight in early scenes. We move beyond the YA feel of the Pacific Northwest to the saccharine slick of ‘90s sex-chillers like Basic Instinct when Anastasia is deflowered; Christian and his high-end catalogue home both recall the middle-class fantasy of wealth made famous by Robert Redford in Indecent Proposal. Johnson is shot like an Instagram selfie with her “flaws” — such as they really aren’t on such a heavenly young body — lit up in warm, amateur filters, and there are a million quite funny phallic symbols strewn across this visually rich, libidinally poor sex desert that one is prompted to say, as Anastasia might, “Gee! Holy Cow!”. The imagery is clever and lovely.
Taylor-Johnson also manages some dialogue alchemy. By all accounts, the book’s author held unprecedented influence throughout the production cycle and her insistence that certain lines be retained “for the fans” was worked to spectacular advantage. When Anastasia Steele offers up her ridiculous name, for example, which is better suited to a Mills and Boon heroine of the ’70s than today’s Modern Bottom, she does so with a palpable wink. And when Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey is forced to repeat the dire line “I don’t make love, I fuck!”, you can almost hear the director laughing as she circles the exclamation point in red and writes “lol” in the margins of the screenplay.
The story, though, gives us all of the undulating surprise of the Nullarbor. It would take great creative liberty to excite the book’s flat narrative, and even a team of credentialed screenwriters couldn’t be bothered screwing with a tale whose intensity is driven entirely by sex acts that aren’t even as hot as something you might have seen Michael Douglas administering to much younger women in multiplexes 20 years ago. (Although, I should say, my learned friend A gave a thumbs up to the authenticity of the chesterfield in the dungeon. Even if the sex wasn’t evocative of BDSM practice, the interior design, apparently, was.)
What we have is a film with a surplus of visual beauty but a pleasure deficit, and a viewer is left with a feeling not unlike that of having eaten a Quarter Pounder. It looks good but it is neither nourishing nor substantial, and you can’t quite work out why everyone, including you, keeps buying this shit. You know you have been fooled into this purchase of cheap grace and you know that its production relies, somewhere along the chain, on cruelty.
You can taste the pain in the special sauce of Fifty Shades, but not in a good way. Not in a Sassy Schoolgirl or Night Porter way, where dominance and submission are erotic, like some sex is erotic, because they evoke and unbind power from the everyday. This film doesn’t even begin to disturb the libido or the shape of gender. Of course, that’s not a crime. It’s just a disappointment.
I am aware of the feminist critique of the film and, bless, there was a knot of young women in Rosie the Riveter doo-rags half-yelling “Stop violence against women!” at the Melbourne premiere last night. But such critiques, such as this one, are enfeebled by a revulsion for desire. Some of us like to be spanked, and some of us who like to be spanked, and Anastasia clearly does, like the matter and the declaration of our consent to be muddied. Unfortunately for a black-and-white feminism, “no means no” doesn’t work in a world of safe words. And, desire does not conform to even the noblest political goals.
If there is an “anti-feminist” message in the clearly fictional world of Fifty Shades, it is not that some women get off on pain. Which we do. It is that all women are now required to feast on the same mass-produced repast. Nice as it looks, this movie tastes bad when it means that so many of our orgasms are motivated by the same market force.
* This article was originally published at Daily Review