The Trappings of Desire
By Nick Pinkerton

Fifty Shades of Grey
Dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson, U.S., Universal

You cannot move. The restraints holding you firmly in place have little or no give. You can visualize a means of escape, but there’s no way out. You are helpless, and your only freedom comes from taking a sort of glory in this helplessness. This, anyways, is how I imagine director Sam Taylor-Johnson might’ve felt during the process of adapting E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, though she deserves no pity—it’s a predicament that she gave herself up to of free will.

James’s novel, the first in a trilogy about a touch-and-go sadomasochistic affair between a young mogul named Christian Grey and Anastasia “Ana” Steele, a virginal English literature major at Washington State University, was an international phenomenon of such proportions that its eventual emergence as a multiplex property was a foregone conclusion. Every stage of Fifty Shades of Grey’s transmutation from page-to-screen, from bidding war to the “attachment” of talent, was reported on and eagerly scrutinized by fans of the franchise, for Christian and Ana, like Spider-Man or Harry Potter, were understood to be the property of their public as much as any individual creator. In fact the novel was born of the same fan culture that it would eventually be beholden to, having begun its life as Twilight fan fiction with hardcore inserts published online by James, using the sobriquet “Snowqueen’s Icedragon,” later retrofitted to lose the supernatural elements once a publisher showed interest, vampirism replaced by BDSM as the “I can’t go for that” element. Various names were floated for director, including that of Joe Wright, perhaps best known for his very free adaptations of Great Books classics Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina. But while the classics, having spanned time, are regarded as durable enough to withstand a black Heathcliffe and Shakespeare played by WWI doughboys or on a space station, anyone charged with handling a still-sizzling pop phenomenon tampers at their own risk.

In order to bring Universal’s Fifty Shades of Grey into theaters with an R rating from the MPAA, certain concessions have been necessary. Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian, at no point flashes his cock onscreen, neither tumescent nor Affleckian Playgirl lump—for the most part the emotionally distressed multimillionaire keeps his distressed denim on during BDSM sessions in his “Red Room of Pain.” Dakota Johnson, playing Anastasia, is asked to bare a little more skin, though nothing that will register on the pop culture Richter scale like Sharon Stone’s leg-uncrossing in Basic Instinct. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anything having the same impact in 2015, for the crossover of Sasha Grey has preceded Fifty Shades of Grey. In the years since the heyday of the Erotic Thriller, of which Paul Verhoeven’s film is a textbook example, the multiplex has largely ceded sex to broadband Internet and premium cable, and it’s tempting to root for a movie which attempts, however tentatively, to roll back this tendency.

Here’s where the reservations come in, for while Fifty Shades of Grey has been received as a seducer of the innocent by some sections of the populace, as though it was practically hawking tie-in butt-plugs to tweens, for others it’s not nearly kink-positive enough. From the get-go, Ana is dragged into Christian’s fantasies hemming and hawing. After bringing her into his world with the lure of vanilla sex, he attempts to cajole her into signing a contract, a formalized, annotated agreement to be his submissive. (The loss of her virginity a recent memory and uninitiated in online smut, Ana has to wrap her head around such items as “anal fisting”—a matter of trying to run before you’ve learned to walk if ever there was one.) Without wholly ceding her free will, Ana consents to rope bondage, a brisk spanking, and a few floggings, giving at least the appearance of pleasure while doing so. However, when the movie ends—very abruptly, it should be said, drawing a collective gasp from my preview audience—she remains as perplexed as ever by the idea that inflicting and receiving pain could be any part of a loving relationship. For his part, Christian is a crummy mentor, unwilling or unable to cultivate an appreciation of new pleasures in his partner, and unreflective about what he calls his “singular” tastes, usually breaking off any discussion of the matter at “That’s just how I am.” While Christian reveals that he was himself initiated into BDSM by a friend of his mother’s at the tender age of fifteen, having started from the bottom, as it were, acting as her submissive for six years before taking up the riding crop on his own, the experience seems to have left him with very little relatable insight into what Ana must be going through.

Let us operate from the assumption that Christian and Ana aren’t intended as some universal Man and Woman or a primer for sexual behavior to be imitated, but only meant to be the characters Christian and Ana, and that their dialogue or expressed attitudes—or even the attitude of E L James, whose trilogy is a kind-of Dom’s Reform—don’t necessarily equate to what the movie is “saying,” for even the most dull movie is bound to be at least a little polyphonic. To cite two examples which touch on the S&M tradition, Barbet Schroeder’s La maîtresse (1973) and Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014) are both films that explore, to varying degrees of success, a disharmony of desire between two people. The premise is not, in itself, risible.

Schroeder’s approach is naturalism that leans imperceptibly toward the absurd; Strickland’s a deadpan banalization of Eurosleaze titillation. Taylor-Johnson, on the other hand, is dealing in the strictly archetypal. This is not to say that there are no such things as 22-year-old virgins or 27-year-old captains of industry with torsos of Grecian marble who play beautiful, melancholy piano music in the wee hours of the night in their penthouse apartments, but Taylor-Johnson has made no attempt to ground Fifty Shades of Grey’s proceedings within the recognizable tenets of dramatic realism. The setting, then, is pure fantasy, with a touch of the bedtime story—speaking of the process of adapting the book, Taylor-Johnson called it “like a dark twisted fairy tale, very romantic.” Ana is a Sleeping Beauty, a Rapunzel, who has been waiting for her Prince Charming. She is, prior to Christian entering her life, a tabula rasa. She drives a beat-up VW Bug and wears a Black Keys t-shirt, and there is a shelf of vinyl records in the off-campus apartment that she shares with her roommate, Kate (Eloise Mumford), but these are an art director’s fallback idea of “funky” college chic, not extensions of a personality. Though Ana’s read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, she’s somehow remained innocent of any knowledge of love as pain—indeed, innocent of any knowledge at all, though she’s a fast study. When she first approaches the skyscraper that headquarters Grey Enterprises, she looks up, daunted, at the towering glass-and-steel monster dong, which shunts her to the edge of the frame. When she returns to negotiate the terms of the contract that Christian has put before her, she is shot in the elevator from a low angle, looming and fully centered.

Christian has the benefit of a past, but is wholly unequipped to the challenge to his dominance that Ana poses. As played by Dornan, he has the quality of an extraterrestrial trying unsuccessfully to bluff his way into human society—or a high-functioning sociopath. (“You’re the complete serial killer,” Ana tells him after he stops by the hardware store where she works to pick up some masking tape and cable ties.) Christian wants something from Ana, and thanks to the book’s infamy, we know what he wants quite some time before she does. During their courtship, Taylor-Johnson wrings comedy from this dramatic irony, as in the hardware store scene, or a moment where he nonchalantly refers to the room where he keeps his toys, and she replies: “Like, your X-Box and stuff?”

In moments like this, Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey seems to be playing to the people who think that James’s book is basically silly, anticipating and in some way accommodating their sneers with a sense of humor. (In a similar spirit, we can find Dornan on The Tonight Show, reading passages from the novel in goofy accents with host Jimmy Fallon.) It works, because Johnson is a game comedienne, and because much of the raw material that Taylor-Johnson has to use is stuff that plays better as comedy. When Dornan delivers the money-shot line “Because I’m fifty shades of fucked-up,” for example, he does so with his back to the camera, and you imagine that this was a solution landed on when he couldn’t stop breaking into giggles.

But because Fifty Shades of Grey is a consensus-building event movie designed to appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of a potential audience, it also needs to satisfy the readers of the book who were turned on by it, or at least turned on to the central relationship. In this it’s a bungle—or so it seems so to me, though the movie is not explicitly catering to the desires of a male heterosexual, which is to say, my own. That’s fine; the rest of the culture is there to do that. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the difference of male and female desire is one of dialects rather than languages, and I didn’t understand a word here. The film’s major deviation from the book comes in its dumping Ana’s interior monologue which, from what is admittedly only a browsing acquaintance with James’s prose, seems to me to have been a necessary exigency. This window to Ana’s psyche gone, it remains for Johnson to convey Ana’s experience with the tools available to her—the way she carries herself before, after, and during sex, the flush in her cheeks, a fleeting expression of hesitance, the tenor of a moan. Very little of this comes across, however, so when Ana suddenly arrives at a point where she can no longer tolerate Christian’s fetishes, it’s wholly abrupt—she’s been playing along and giving a very convincing performance of someone enjoying herself while doing so. That Christian hasn’t noticed her resistance or hasn’t cared to might serve the purposes of Taylor-Johnson’s story, but I don’t see how giving us nothing to notice does.

If I’m singling out Johnson, it’s because we learn early not to expect much of Dornan’s Christian. In keeping with Taylor-Johnson’s “fairy tale” idea of the material, he needs something of the ogre about him, the Beast who disguises the Prince within. There’s no air of carnivorous menace lurking behind this Christian’s punctiliousness, though, and his bedroom manner is dutiful rather than devouring. Dornan doesn’t fare any better when called on to suggest depths of psychological turmoil. The source of Christian’s hang-ups is, of course, rooted in a troubled past. The family that Christian introduces Ana to seems normal enough: His mother is played by Marcia Gay-Harden, his siblings by Luke Grimes and Rita Ora. (Not a one of them do anything of interest here—though the smug repeat-customer assumptions that rule the contemporary franchise demands that we trust to the fact that they’ll have some lode-bearing role elsewhere in the architecture of the planned trilogy, already greenlit.) Christian, however, had a “rough start in life,” the details of which he begins to divulge to Ana—his birth mother was a prostitute and a crack addict who died when he was four, and it was presumably this early experience of helplessness which contributed to his mania for control.

This is schlock psychology of the sort that was popular in Hollywood films of the mid-1940s—I can imagine a Universal picture called The Strange Affair of Christian Grey—but it was in the book, so into the movie it goes. Poverty, of the sort that scarred young Christian both physically and mentally, appears in Fifty Shades of Grey only as an abstraction, a source of blockages to be “overcome” on the way to normative reprogramming. The film is far more concrete when it comes to wealth, lasciviously ogling Christian’s Audi, his private helicopter, and his apartment, kept in a state of spotlessness which Howard Hughes might admire. “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” Christian tells Ana on their first meeting, evidently a believer in the prosperity gospel, though as regards work, we only see him take the occasional phone call. For Ana’s part, she displays no professional ambition to speak of, not so much as a reference to an unfinished novel tucked away in a desk drawer somewhere.

This is as it must be, for Ana’s relationship with Christian requires an enormous amount of leisure time—like the glider flight that he takes her on, S&M is an exclusive, executive experience that comes with a price tag. When Christian first displays his collection of toys, the turn-on isn’t just in imagining what they’re used for, but in the idea of owning all of that stuff—he’s a 21st-century Jay Gatsby, showing off paddles and dildos instead of silk shirts. Rather than anything to do with sexual connoisseurship or philosophy in the bedroom, all that comes across through Fifty Shades of Grey’s absence of erotic heat is a lust for the appurtenances of luxury, something that’s more commonplace than singular.