"50 Shades of Grey": Not as sexy (but also not as terrible) as you might expect

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan get naked in this intriguing, arch but only semi-steamy consumer-grade kink

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 11, 2015 4:45PM (EST)

Dakota Johnson in "Fifty Shades of Grey"            (Universal Pictures)
Dakota Johnson in "Fifty Shades of Grey" (Universal Pictures)

“Behind this door is my playroom,” says buff, blank and smooth billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), inflicting his Mount Rushmore gaze and flying-buttress hair upon wide-eyed and frizzy-haired Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who seems naked and newborn even with her clothes on. Christian is walking Anastasia through his Seattle bachelor pad early in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s lucid, focused and almost antiseptic film version of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” He lives – accepting for the moment the notion that he exists – in a high-rise sprawl of high-end consumer goods, a luxury apartment with no hint of any individual personality beyond the unseen playroom’s unspoken possibilities. It’s a holographic representation of a rich man’s life, drawn from expensive but generic mail-order catalogs, and suited to a character who seems projected from a 17-year-old girl’s daydreams: Hyper-masculine, loaded, bored and in need of redemption, not to mention unconvincingly non-gay.

So that’s where the Xbox is, Anastasia suggests? With, unless I imagined it, a semi-demi-quiver of her lower lip suggesting that she suspects the answer is no? The answer is no. This scene is unconvincing for, oh, so many reasons, but let’s stick with one: How the hell would Anastasia know what an Xbox is? She knows nothing about anything. She is a 22-year-old English major at a liberal arts college in Portland (Portland!) so impossibly ingenuous that she has never heard of BDSM and is a virgin – not a feared-by-Republicans virgin who gives blowjobs, but the real thing – and cannot envision what is signified by the term “butt plug.” So she’s a fan of “Grand Theft Auto”? I don’t think so. She was either born yesterday – fully grown, and floating on the divine foam in a scallop shell – or she was teleported forward out of a Thomas Hardy novel. Or, as I read Taylor-Johnson’s take on the porn-romance bestseller by E.L. James (as adapted by “Saving Mr. Banks” writer Kelly Marcel), Anastasia is an angel fallen from heaven to suffer unendurable torment (or at least a few smacks on the ass) and so redeem a lost sinner. A lost, hot sinner with piles of dough, every kind of conveyance short of a magic carpet and no end of free time.

I have more to say about that, but let’s cut to the chase. Yes, Anastasia and Christian spend some time in that playroom together, even in this pointedly inconclusive opening chapter of their story. It too turns out to be generic in its own way, as if Christian had just sent his chauffeur to the neo-Victorian fetish boutique and bought out the entire stock. His supposed sexual expertise is a lot like his supposed job in an office tower with his name on the front of it, where he hangs out all day with a bunch of leggy assistants out of a 1978 Helmut Newton photo shoot and plays Minesweeper on his MacBook or something. It's not remotely convincing and in some sense isn't meant to be.

It would be overstating the cast to claim that Taylor-Johnson and Marcel go for a campy or satirical reworking of this material, in the mode of “Showgirls” or “American Psycho.” But there are more than a few notes of ambiguous, ironic distortion throughout the movie, more obvious when it comes to the Helmut Newton girls and less obvious in the sex scenes, both “vanilla” and mild BDSM, that comprise the main attraction. Whether viewers will find “Fifty Shades” arousing is of course an individual matter, but I suspect it offers support for those critical theories about the difference between the male and female gaze, albeit in complicated fashion. There’s no question that Taylor-Johnson (a British artist-turned-filmmaker, and a woman) renders Christian’s elusive persona, impressive physique and penumbra of consumer goods, seen through Anastasia’s eyes, as the focus of both power and desire.

But I found the film purposefully anti-erotic, and I don’t mean because it was directed by a woman and is aimed first and foremost at female viewers. (You could say the same thing about Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” which will sear the eyeballs out of your head.) We certainly see a great deal of Dakota Johnson and/or her body double as Anastasia in the playroom scenes, and it’s not as if Taylor-Johnson declines to objectify her. Visibly trembling with need while clothed, Anastasia becomes virtually still when undressed and enmeshed in Christian’s literal ropes and metaphorical web. Her body is presented as a near-abstract study in shape and form, an object of aesthetic contemplation more than lust. She is an exquisitely worked nude figure, its perfection almost painful to behold, rather than a representation of a person having an experience. Her curves echo those of Christian’s lamps and vases, her perfect skin the perfect marble of his floors and counters and elevator doors. What Christian means when he says he wants Anastasia becomes abundantly clear.

All that has virtually nothing to do with BDSM in the bedrooms of the real world – which is pretty far from being some emotionless, acquisitive power game, whether you approve of it or not – and a lot more to do with hoary conceptions of what men and women want from relationships. Anastasia wants cuddling and intimacy and movie dates and hot sex where she’s the focus of attention and a stream of luxury gifts and trips to surprise destinations. Well, why not? Christian wants to whip her and use her and then send her to bed in a different room. I’m guessing he also wants not to have to remember when her damn birthday is, but that doesn’t directly come up.

Christian’s problem is not that he has unconventional sexual appetites, because in the universe of “Fifty Shades” those do not exist in themselves. He could not possibly find gratification in a dominant sexual role, nor could he possibly find female partners who enjoy a submissive role. James is willing to titillate her audience by acknowledging that such practices exist and some people claim to like them, but then must retreat to a position possibly more puritanical (and certainly more hypocritical) than simply ignoring them. Those people are of course mistaken and damaged, and their so-called preferences are symptoms of sinfulness, confusion, trauma or abuse (which pretty much amount to the same thing). One could say such things are the work of the devil, but in Christian’s case it can all be blamed on a wildly implausible back story involving a diabolical cougar ex-girlfriend.

Anyway, don’t let the name fool you: What goes on in Christian’s playroom is deadly serious, and the stakes could not possibly be higher – if we were in a 17th-century religious parable, which in some respects we are. As in the stories about Don Juan or Faust, Christian Grey’s legendary but less ripped great-grandfathers, the contest is over a man’s soul, and Mephistopheles has his hooks deep in those meaty pecs. Whether she knows it or not, Anastasia’s task is to pull Christian from his impeccably furnished upper-story version of the Slough of Despond, the swampy mire of doubt, fear, temptation, lust, shame, guilt and bottomless sinfulness described in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” (The hero of that most famous of all English religious parables, by the way, is named – well, you’ve guessed it by now, or you knew it already.)

Am I reading too much unintended meaning into a conventional romantic fiction, one that happened to touch a cultural nerve by dabbling in some previously taboo erotic fantasy? (Let’s set aside the question of how taboo or unusual any aspect of BDSM-related sexual practice or fantasy could possibly be, two centuries after the Marquis de Sade and two millennia after Caligula.) Well, sure. The “Pilgrim’s Progress” parallel might be coincidence, and I don’t know of any direct evidence that James means “Fifty Shades of Grey” as a religious allegory. To no one’s surprise, the guardians of Christian morality have been scandalized by her books. (They had no idea about butt plugs either. Until now!) But to borrow a word from Thomas Hardy, Anastasia’s fave literary author, religious meaning is immanent in the romance novel and entirely obvious in the vampire novel, in which the soulless but irresistibly seductive demon lover ravishes the innocent virgin.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” began in emulation of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, whose plausible spiritual lessons are closer to the surface. So far as we know Christian Grey is not immortal and doesn’t drink blood, but he has a dark secret that renders him unlike other men, and lends him fearsome erotic power. Dornan, an Irish-born actor and former Calvin Klein model supremely skilled at that hunky-guy-pulling-off-shirt maneuver, was previously best known for playing a serial killer on the series “The Fall,” and he brings the same inscrutable and almost inhuman intensity to Christian.

As almost everyone who’s ever written about James’ books has observed, Christian’s Über-stalker behavior would send up multiple red flags in real life: He spies on Anastasia, has her followed, pursues her across the country to interrupt a private meal with her mom, and even steals her car and sells it. (Unlike the bad boyfriend who would do that and keep the money, he replaces it with one that’s much more expensive and obnoxious.) So he could be a rich psychopath with armies of assistants and limitless technology, or he could have supernatural powers. Either way it’s evidently what girls like.

Oh, wait – except they don’t. That is, they do but they don’t. It’s so confusing! Christian’s obsessive and possessive pursuit of Anastasia, along with his desire to punish and dominate her in the playroom, represent attention she craves, delivered in much larger doses than she wants. Like Edward Cullen’s propensity for drinking blood, they stand for the untrammeled masculine Id, which not so secretly yearns for the powerful feminine superego that can master it. As antediluvian as these sexual politics are – woman as civilizing force, lion tamer and holy redeemer -- Dakota Johnson captures Anastasia’s awakening from angelic innocence to worldly experience in witty and compelling fashion. She moves rapidly from woozy, lip-biting enthrallment (not to mention unconditioned split ends) toward a sleeker and more calculated performance of need and desire and command – the performance of femininity, in other words -- which incorporates the understanding that the real power struggle is not happening in the playroom.

I wouldn’t say that Taylor-Johnson has made a good movie from “Fifty Shades of Grey,” precisely. That’s asking too much. But she and Marcel have risen to the challenge of this bizarre cultural moment with an odd and memorable film, one that pulls elements of archetypal fable -- Don Juan defeated by true love; Faust rescued from Mephistopheles – out of an incoherent gender-war Rorschach test with no plot. On its surface, the “Fifty Shades” movie is a depthless pornographic fantasy, as superficial and thunderingly empty as Christian Grey’s enormous head or the echoing halls of his apartment. Beneath that surface lies the buzzing life force we feel within Anastasia, the force of desire at war with itself.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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