Let’s get the movie review out of the way: Fifty Shades of Grey is bad, but not quite as bad as the book. Sometimes the filmmakers gently tweak instead of polishing the novel, suggesting a trashier, funnier movie that might have been. Dakota Johnson is very good, Jamie Dornan is terrible; the only spark between them happens when she’s blindfolded (she can finally avoid his perpetual smirk.) The writing is awful (somebody allowed E.L. James to be an active producer, and she fought every effort to adapt and improve) but the photography is shiny and the music is inoffensive. Despite some critics’ griping, the sex really is sexy, but the movie’s dramatic rhythm is slack and those scenes play like music video interludes. A romance or sex comedy should have a robust structure to support the naughty bits; this film is little more than expensive softcore.
And yet. When E.L. James’ novels came out, I knew women who read them voraciously. Intelligent, well-read, functioning members of society have purchased 100 million copies in 52 languages. The movie has already broken box office records. Audiences are responding to something, despite the snarkiest efforts of critics like myself; we shouldn’t dismiss the phenomenon.
Certainly sex is a draw, and many who wouldn’t think about looking at Internet porn seem eager for whatever Hollywood can deliver within the confines of an “R” rating. (France’s CNC rated the film PG-12, approving it for viewers 12 and older.) Conservative pundits have been quick to cite the perceived dangers of BDSM sex; at the same time, BDSM advocates don’t care for the movie. Fifty Shades of Grey is not “about” sadism and masochism. It’s a reverse fairy tale about an independent princess who rescues the damaged prince. (The current movie is the first installment of a trilogy; I can’t imagine another four hours of similar material.) He “needs” to whip her because he had a rough childhood. She will heal him, in the name of True Love (or at least in the name of commerce – as someone wrote, without the helicopters and fancy cars she’d be outta there in a heartbeat.)
David Edelstein wrote for New York Magazine, “…newscasters and talk-show hosts will squirm through discussions of BDSM with…everyone reliably missing the point: that in a country where almost every movie features a hero racking up serial-killer-worthy body counts, it’s a little slap and tickle that draws the most blood.” His point is that nobody gets too worked up by Liam Neeson’s latest (Taken 3), or Denzel Washington’s (The Equalizer), etc. It’s true – when I managed a cinema parents would ask, “Is it rated R for sex, or just violence?” France might be on to something.
Last week, I saw Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play. In the late 1800’s, the idea that women might find sex enjoyable was odd, and the concept of a device to bring them pleasure was taboo. I found myself wondering what the modern equivalent might be – which of today’s unmentionables will seem quaint in 100 years? Probably BDSM. Although research is beginning to emerge that consensual participation in such activities can be psychologically healthy, conventional wisdom says that BDSM is aberrant. Certainly the movie Fifty Shades of Grey leans toward “unhealthy,” at least in the first installment; if he were well-adjusted, it is implied, he wouldn’t be doing these things.
Plenty has been written about how unhealthy the protagonists’ relationship is in this film. But isn’t that what a romantic drama is usually about – the resolution of conflicts on the way to a happy ending? The movie makes every effort to give its heroine choices. The bulk of the plot is a literal negotiation for what each party wants (they draw up a written contract), and what she will and won’t do for love. The movie allows her to say “no,” many times. “But if young women see this, they’ll start experimenting with S&M!” Maybe. When a madman shot up a theater in Colorado during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, hotheads screamed that violent movies cause violent behavior. And one or two people who watch The Avengers will put on tights and jump off buildings. And some who watch John Grisham movies will become lawyers. I’d rather they experiment with S&M. Fifty Shades of Grey is only slightly risqué – as much as protestors fear it will undermine the moral fabric of society, it’s fairly conventional at heart. (France got it right.) Consider again: at least 100 million readers, and record-breaking movie audiences. A truly subversive piece would not be embraced like that.
Here’s what I enjoyed: my fellow moviegoers. I sat by myself in a packed theater and listened. Reading is a solitary activity, whereas movies are communal. The reactions of those around impacts our own experience (which is one reason texters are so annoying – they aren’t watching with us.) Two women behind me recited many of the lines along with the characters. There was plenty of laughter during the film, too – and not the tittering, uncomfortable kind, like when teen boys watch Judd Apatow. At the end, they protested the cliffhanger, then applauded. And not an orgy in sight.