I liked the movie FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. There I said it–and I can already hear the PC police getting their panties in a twist. (Don’t even get me started on the Mt. Holyoke College student group who cancelled a production of THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES because it wasn’t inclusive of trans women. Moronic.) Indeed, the entire populace has whipped itself to a lather over this BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism) escapade. The advance sales on the film have dominated the box office, fanning Fandango to a frenzy; sexperts have offered tips on how to have fantasy weekends on a budget: an old tie and an ice cube and you’re good to go! Meanwhile, a social media campaign called #50dollarsnot50shades is urging folks to boycott the film and instead donate to battered women’s shelters.
Forgive me, but fantasies have no politics, and that’s what this is– an erotic sexual fantasy for women, of the most traditional variety, archetypally rooted in female physiology, the sweet-release-of-tension-to-achieve-orgasm kind of fantasy, hence the bodice-ripping ravishment– not rape– fantasy. Here the fantasy is enacted by two consenting, gorgeous young creatures who safely (she’s been to a doctor) and monogamously (he is as hooked on her as she is on him) have mutually pleasurable sex (the edgy, dangerous kind) within the confines of his astoundingly lavish surroundings. The movie is MUCH better than the abominably written book by E.L. James which I borrowed from my 86 year old mother-in-law and which I could not finish, but which was, at one point, reportedly selling globally at the rate of two books a second.
Here, the leads are well-cast, have real chemistry, and can act, though they’re not given much to do beyond sex. The delightful Dakota Johnson in her first lead feature film role (daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson) stars as beautiful Anastasia Steele, the virginal coed who meets intimidatingly handsome billionaire businessman Christian Grey played by Irishman Jamie Dornan. His American accent is perfect, his torso, more so. In fact, the one-time model was known as “the golden torso.” They are immediately smitten, and their initial scene together in his monumental granite-slabbed skyscraper, she in a flowery peter pan-collared blouse and he in a sleek bespoke suit– is actually well-calibrated. They move slyly toward each other, sizing each other up–she’s playful, funny, unwittingly assertive, but innocently sexy (very like her mom Melanie Griffith). He’s dauntingly assured, but caught off guard by her directness and his own reaction to her. This is the balance that keeps them interesting together.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has enough sense to loosen things up with humor; thus Anastasia mocks Christian’s melodramatic mien in a funny drunken phone call, and later there’s an amusing scene over duct tape in the hardware store where she works. Of course, she doesn’t yet know just how tortured he is, or what his “singular” tastes are. She will find out soon enough when he takes her to his playroom and shows her his hardware. (Forgive me the frisky wordplay.)
The best part of the movie IS the sex. About 20 minutes of it. The film, thankfully, leaves out the more gynecologically-oriented fetishes (tampons, silver balls), and instead focuses on R-rated material, the deflowering, the escalating, delicate but very deliberate spankings and bondage. No blood, no bruises; that wouldn’t be sexy. It would be kinkier if there were more to fuel them outside the play room, but it does heat up inside the “red room of pain,” all soft focus and richly lit, with Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” pulsing on the soundtrack. (By the way, that lap dance Miss Bey did for a national family audience to open the Grammies last year on primetime TV? Now that was offensive.)
Does Anastasia simply cave to Christian’s demands? No. She pushes back. She refuses. She questions all the things anyone would ask under these fantastical circumstances. He is intrigued by her, faithful to her, increasingly in love with her. They dance around each other’s limits of control– otherwise, there would be no sexual tension and this would belong to a different genre all together, a horror show of sexual torture and rape.
No doubt, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is a few shades short of a full film. If there were developed subplots and interesting secondary characters (Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Ehle are wasted as the protagonists’ mothers; the extended families and friends are nondescript.) we might have a real movie. But does 50 SHADES accomplish what it sets out to do? That’s a criteria an old friend of mine, the late great film critic David Brudnoy, once told me was the first thing he considered when evaluating a film. I say yes, 50 SHADES absolutely accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to create a vacuum-sealed erotic fantasy on the big screen. Mission accomplished.
But I had to laugh recalling what a colleague sarcastically said on the way out of a screening we had just seen of the film, “I hope they make the last book into two films!” LOL– Yes, HARRY POTTER, and TWILIGHT certainly knew how to wring every last dime out of their franchises, and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is already on its way to mining the guilty pleasures of a whole new group of fantasy-seeking fans.