glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | april 2015
“Fifty Shades of Grey," the new sensation at the box office has so far been greeted with one of the most curious mixes of outrage, bemusement and an awful lot of BDSM advocates screaming “That's not what we do!" Given the MPAA's childish aversion to sex and their integral role in making adult only films a social and commercial taboo, the very idea of making a film that bases its premise on a relationship between an abusively domineering man and a submissive woman is quite a stretch, add the bondage fetish into the mix and it's a wander this even made it through the first board meeting. Why has the often sexually austere Hollywood decided to go with such an edgy topic for a film ... Well, the book made a crap ton of money and ethics be damned, they want a piece of that pie! The whiff of commercial success is always an incentive for business to drop its knickers in glorious abandonment of its dearly cherished modesty and the MPAA is no different.
Thankfully for the MPAA, the film is easy to defend in terms of obscenity because aside from the fact that it's clearly not pornography, the most potentially contentious material, i.e. the BDSM, is not exactly that challenging. I can only hope the book does it better because this is generally pretty lightweight stuff. Given the recent Internet ban of the real thing in the UK, it's a little curious that 50 Shades managed to get through the British censor board so apparently easily and totally uncut. Granted it got an 18 rating (like an NC17 but without the social or commercial issues) but in France it got a 12 rating (12 years old or over admitted). I'm pretty sure the British censors gave it such a high rating because of the sensitivity of the subject matter that so recently after their draconian restrictions on sex works (pornography) were thrust into place by a government whose hypocrisy knows no bounds. But I digress.
The insanely popular book series has a huge following, it also, like most massively popular franchises, has had its share of critical vitriol thrown in its direction. This is not without justification either. I can only talk about the film though and the first thing that strikes me about the film is its tendency towards the most obvious pulp romantic novel tropes. The characters are stock to say the least.
There's a virginal, innocent woman, unloved and who gets no romantic attention until she meets the attractive millionaire who seems so distant at first but who instantly sees something in her. But all is not well as he's a domineering type and she is a free spirit, she must change him. The opposites are attracting but their personalities clash as she tries to tame the tortured soul of the man she loves but who cannot, it seems, love her without condition ...
It all comes out of a cheap Mills and Boon novel and is different only in its use of whips and restraints. The dialogue is typically and stupendously awful which is particularly worrying considering this was the way E. L. James was insisting it be behind the scenes. With rumours that she is demanding even more say in the screenplay for the sequel, we can only expect the very finest in stilted, clichéd and ironically funny discourse and intercourse to come.
The criticism of the sexual politics of the film, namely Grey's pursuit of a signature on a contract that will allow him to 'use' Ana at his whim, seems to be a case of people seeing only one side of the story. To be fair to what's actually going on it should be pointed out that Anna, as naive and innocent as she may seem, is not a victim in the film, she's actually in control of her situation on most, if not all occasions and the only thing she doesn't keep in control of is her hope that somehow Christian will change. He spends most of his time having to relent to one degree or another to Ana's demands and requests, so in fact, the film is less about his control over her than it is a negotiation. This is a movie where sex and domination is a business transaction complete with do's and don'ts, limits and caveats. Because of this it's about as sexy and exploitative as a board meeting whilst being technically way more moral and responsible than your average hook-up. The problems people have seem to be coming from the way Christian seems intent on pretty much owning Ana in some kind of abusive manner and it's fine to feel that way about the character, but it is the nature of the character and it's not a facet of his personality that is presented as being good. It is also something that Ana is aware of and tries to manage. The whole point of the story is this is a destructive relationship that these characters are in; it's a story arc where Christian needs to be saved. If I were to be critical of anything regarding the themes of the movie it's that the use of BDSM in the story is a purely functional one and not to say the least unflattering to those who practice it in real life.
“Fifty Shades of Grey" is a pretty bad movie in respects to the reliance on terribly hackneyed dialogue and cringe making scenes rather than its central relationship. The interaction of the characters would be so much more interesting if they didn't feel like the product of a bad romance novel meme generator. But that's what we have, every cinematic trope in the book is deployed, including a hilarious moment where Ana gently plays a pencil against her lips in extreme close up with the name Grey prominently displayed along its shaft. Subtlety, thy name is E. L. James. As a side note, the pencil is unchewed — Ana strikes me as a pencil chewer. It's also nothing new. “9 ½ Weeks" has similar themes and “Last Tango in Paris" features a relationship that is based purely in the physical at the man's behest, and this just two of so many films that venture into this territory.
But if you've come to 50 Shades expecting eroticism, well, you're likely to be disappointed. Sure there's some racy sex scenes (including one shot that I'm not quite sure was entirely fake) but there are far more accomplished mainstream and art-house films that do it better. There's the previously mentioned “Last Tango in Paris" with its similar situation of a purely sexual relationship, “Ai No Corrida" (“In the Realm of the Senses") and its story of obsession and its often unusual or extreme situations, or even “9 Songs" that follows a couples relationship expressed through their two mutual passions of sex and music.
There are many more of course, many that are far more interesting and real than this mostly lazy rehash of romance tropes. “Fifty Shades of Grey" is shockingly vanilla in relation to these other films because the central relationship is deeply uninteresting. We've seen it all before and it's all too often funny when it should be profound. This is its major problem as a drama; it's way too funny. I was either laughing at the stupendously clunky dialogue or face palming at the visual clichés like Ana falling over at the feet of Christian when they first meet (not because of her clumsiness but because it was so supremely trite and obvious) or that pencil metaphor or one of dozens of ham-fisted suggestive visuals. It's a bad film, but it's not for the reasons many seem to claim it to be. The thing is whether or not it's bad enough for you to be entertaining and I have to say, much to my own surprise, I rather enjoyed how bad it was and I left the cinema entertained, though probably for the wrong reasons. If you're in the mood for some surprisingly lightweight though impressively straight faced slap and tickle sex comedy then you could do worse. If you're after an adult drama, however, then go somewhere else because 50 Shades is about as interesting in that respect as being spanked with a dead fish.
He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.
For more of Glenn's work, visit his Youtube channel under the name lampyman101.