British filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaption of British author E.L. James’s controversial and best-selling erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey,” about the relationship between a 21-year-old college student and a 27-year-old billionaire who is into bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM), had its world premiere appropriately in the kinky sex capital Berlin at the Berlinale – Berlin International Film Festival. The film is a streamlined, stylized and ultimately sterile studio product that has its moments, particularly in terms of humor, but it ultimately doesn’t ring true, and is nearly as erotic as a film studio executives’ meeting.
James’s novel is by all accounts not good source material, so trying to make a good film is a losing battle from the get-go, because a film is rarely, if ever, better than the book on which it’s based. The novel developed from a Twilight fan fiction series originally titled “Master of the Universe.” The piece featured Twilight characters Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. After comments concerning the series’ considerable sexual content, James decided to remove the story from the online fan-fiction realm and published it on her website FiftyShades.com. Later, she rewrote “Master of the Universe” as an original novel, with the principal characters renamed Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele and removed it from her website before publication under its current title as an e-book and print-on-demand. After its online popularity was evident, Vintage books picked it up for traditional publishing.
British Indian novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie said about the book, “I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace.”
Despite a chorus of such damning criticism from literary and journalistic circles, the novel has been insanely popular, and James has written two more installments, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed.” Inevitably, the original book made its way to a film adaptation, and the sequels are also planned to be filmed. As of February 17, “Fifty Shades of Grey” has grossed $266.6 million worldwide and broke box office records for the biggest weekend opening of a film directed by a woman.
The fundamental and irresolvable problem with the film and its source material is a consistently half-baked and unrealistic story. The relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele is depicted as abusive. Grey, as played by 34-year-old Irish newcomer Jamie Dornan, is identified as a BDSM dominant in the film, but he is really a boundary-trampling, manipulative abuser.
BDSM is overwhelmingly about mutual consent and boundaries as practiced by healthy people who want to spice up their sex life, but showing this would lack dramatic momentum.
The problem is that in having Grey be an abuser, the film does not go far enough in realistically portraying a sociopath, and it is implied that with the love of the right woman, the abuser can be “cured” of his personality disorder, which is totally unrealistic.
This has drawn criticism from the psychological counseling community, because impressionable young women might be conditioned through this that such relationships are somehow normal or even desirable – especially given the sparse elements of romance that are present – ones that Grey uses as sweeteners. Abusers only have a chance at being “cured” after years of intensive therapy, with no guarantee of success, but a sociopath in therapy does not make for racy and compelling reading and/or viewing.
Dakota Johnson, the 25-year-old daughter of Miami Vice heartthrob Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, tries valiantly to breathe some life into her plain-Jane role. The best moments in the film are the bits of comic relief involving her character, such as right before she enters Grey’s “playroom” for the first time. Nevertheless, there is no way for her to rise above the material, which is essentially a soft-core porn film with loads of corporate studio gloss, such as product placement for the Heathman Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Even the film’s filmed setting is a sham, with Vancouver B.C. standing in for the U.S. Pacific Northwest cities of Portland and Seattle.
The film bills itself as a “9 ½ Weeks” for Generation Y, right down to using Annie Lennox on the soundtrack (it opens with Lennox’s cover of “I Put a Spell on You” and “9 ½ Weeks” famously features Eurythmics’ “This City Never Sleeps”), but it has none of the grit and intelligence of the underrated ‘80s film.
James has described the Fifty Shades trilogy as “my midlife crisis, writ large. All my fantasies are in there, and that’s it.” In other words, the books have almost nothing to do with reality, so the movie doesn’t either. The notion of suspension of disbelief does not apply here, because the balanced mix of reality and fantasy that would make suspension of disbelief work is simply not present here, and what we are left with is a story that doesn’t work on any level, and seems like an afterthought. Just like in a soft-core porn film with a plot – which brings us to the sex.
The sex scenes are actually mostly pretty tame and somehow pretty much thoroughly unarousing, and start off with straightforward “vanilla,” i.e. non-BDSM sex. The BDSM that is featured is also pretty light, and director Taylor-Johnson has gone on record admitting that a lot of the sex that was in the original script was cut out. So it really beggars the question that if there is no believable story and not even a decent erotic charge from the sex, what are we watching this movie for?
“Fifty Shades of Grey” is now playing in English without translation at the Cinestar Sony Center in Tiergarten and in English with German subtitles at the Rollberg Cinema in Neukölln.
Review by Kirill Galetski