FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, or: Love Means Never Having to Sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (2015). Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson. Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (2015). Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson. Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was one of those books that come around every decade or so, the type that reads so horribly to someone like me, but develops a huge fan base that can’t be denied. More than a book, it became fuel for fantasy. Millions of die-hard fans of E.L. James’ erotic novel still long for their own Christian Grey. And I hope to God none of them ever finds him. Because while there are plenty of healthy BDSM relationships out there, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is not about that. Instead, it is about an abusive relationship in which a domineering sociopath attempts to bribe and manipulate a young woman into giving up her free will in exchange for gifts and small demonstrations of affection.

The film FIFTY SHADES OF GREY arrives with a shocking amount of pedigree. While the two leads as well as the director are relatively new to being thrust into a spotlight of this intensity, it appears as though every effort has been made to give the story a sense of class. The question is whether this is the rare film that vastly improves on its dodgy source material (such as Clint Eastwood’s film of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY) or whether it is the same old claptrap given studio sheen?

Right away, we know we are in a Neverland of romance tropes as we meet our main character, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Really, that’s her name and it’s far from the most ridiculous thing in the film. She is about to graduate from a prestigious university and is now optimistically looking at an uncertain future. As a favor to her sick roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford, who is good in her supporting role), she agrees to fill in at an important interview for the college paper. It should be noted that while Kate might not feel well, she doesn’t look as if she is an invalid. True, nobody in this film is allowed to look beneath a certain level of glamour. But you would think someone would need to be on death’s door to pass on an interview with world famous, enigmatic billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).

Anastasia arrives at Christian’s business and is ushered around by a staff that seems to be made up entirely of attractive women. She enters his office and immediately trips, falling flat on her face. Anastasia is young and attractive, but she is also fragile, naïve and clumsy. She reads off the interview questions, but Christian immediately takes a pointed interest in Anastasia. He flirts with her, agreeing to a photo session for the paper followed by a coffee date. But like so many before him, he immediately sets upon the “I-love-you-go-away” dance that some of our creepier recent romances have indulged in. He cuts the date short, and then briefly shows affection to her once again, only to say he has to go. This is followed up by Christian sending Anastasia a package of Thomas Hardy novels – first editions no less.

What follows is one of the most unsettling scenes in the film. I’m going to lay it out for you because it’s an important illustration that while the film intends this dance to be a romantic “will they or won’t they” situation, it plays out as something far more sinister. Anastasia has just completed her finals, meaning that she will soon be reaching the end what was likely a long and difficult road in her education. As is tradition, she and her roommate decide to go out to the bar and celebrate.

Anastasia has a bit too much and with a smile on her face, drunk dials Christian. She basically tells him she is sending the books back because she doesn’t have time for someone who sends mixed signals. And let’s face it, Christian has it coming. I have been friends with many women over the years and not one of them said they enjoyed it when men played mind games with them. But this is not the type of insight this film wants from its women or its audience. At the other end of the phone, Christian is intense and furious. “Have you been drinking,” he asks with some urgency before ordering her to go home immediately. She blows him off and refuses to give her location before hanging up. Within seconds, he calls back – “I know where you are. I’m coming to get you.”

And sure enough, Christian has somehow pinged her cell phone, triangulated her location using GPS and tracked her down. He arrives, puts her in a car and takes her back to his place. Anastasia wakes up the next morning feeling a great sense of shame. But what exactly did she do wrong here? A young woman celebrating the end of finals before she graduates should be free to go out, get a little tipsy, drunk dial a guy who acted weird and yes, perhaps even make a few mistakes. It’s not terribly dignified, but it’s a part of life and something everyone should be free to indulge in a few times. When Christian swoops in, the film would like us to believe that he is a knight in shining armor coming to her rescue. But she did not need rescuing. Even though a friend was making advances towards her, it seemed as though she was capable of telling this person no and ending it. No third party necessary. Christian Grey is not a hero. He is a stalker who arrives uninvited, tells her he doesn’t approve of her lifestyle choices and absconds with her.  This is not romantic; this is terrifying and a sign of things to come.

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At this point, Christian and Anastasia start what seems like a romantic relationship. But hold on, Christian tells her flatly the he doesn’t do the romance thing. When she agrees to see him, he personally flies her in his helicopter to his estate. He pours them each a glass of wine and then tells her that before they can go any further, she must sign a non-disclosure agreement. It’s hardly the most romantic overture and should be yet another sign that Anastasia should run away. She signs it a bit too readily, but perhaps she is aware of the ridiculousness of the situation. You see up to this point, we have seen a number of people waiting on Christian. But for his pseudo-date, he has made sure they are alone. There is no one else in sight when he pushes this paper in front of her. But an NDA is a legally binding document and while many don’t technically require a witness to be present (I was shocked to discover this, incidentally), it surely would be prudent for Christian to make sure there were a few present. After all, this is one of the most financially tempting young men in the United States. What would it take for his dates to say the contract was forged or worse yet that they were forced to sign under duress? If Grey’s peccadillos did get out, it’s not as though such a thing would be wildly out of character.

It gets worse. The moment she signs, Christian takes her to his playroom, a place he keeps his toys. “You mean like your Xbox and stuff,” she asks in a manner that makes her naiveté even more unsettling? No, what’s in there are whips, floggers, an assortment of bondage gear and so on. It’s actually a rather opulent, luxurious and impressive display. He tells her that if she’s freaked out, the helicopter is gassed up and ready to take her wherever she wants to go. But this is ridiculous too. As I mentioned already, they seem to be alone and the pilot of helicopter is Christian himself. The film tries to throw up smoke to make it seem less creepy, but if Anastasia was disturbed by Christian’s playroom, there’s really nowhere to which she can escape.

Christian informs Anastasia that he is a dominant looking for a submissive. She will do whatever he says, whenever he says it. If she is good, she will be rewarded. If she isn’t, she will be punished. Anastasia is unable to reconcile this with her previous knowledge of sex since she is still a virgin. Upon learning this, Christian takes her in his arms and makes love to her, far more tenderly than he is used to.

The rest of the film features Anastasia wondering whether she should sign a contract with Christian, binding her both figuratively and literally as his submissive. He encourages her to look up submissive on the internet and do some research, which much have sent her to so many porn sites she would have liked to have unseen. In the meantime, Christian tries to sweeten the deal.

And here is where we get into more insidious territory. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel work overtime trying to give Anastasia as much free will and moxie as possible. I was happy to see her assert herself as much as she did. But let’s not mince words. Christian has Anastasia right where he wants her and seems to be playing her like a fiddle. She has never had a truly romantic or physical relationship before. To her, everything she is discovering whether it be whips and chains or mild groping is completely new to her. Do you remember the first time you started experiencing these things? Now imagine that you are what is considered a late bloomer, in your early twenties, and all of this comes flooding in at once. Anastasia gets all the new sensations of love, sex and even a little bit of kink. Then, Christian makes sure to absolve himself of all legal responsibility while giving her the illusion of consent.

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Meanwhile, he bribes her with what should be standard procedure for an attentive boyfriend in his tax bracket. He takes her flying, buys her gifts and at one point finally gives in and tells Anastasia that if she signs his contract, he will agree to go on an actual date with her once a week. He says this with all the weight that would come from selling one’s soul.

That so many women seem to have swooned over this arrangement is troubling since the entire concept of the book is terribly insulting to women. Anastasia is a free-thinking, educated woman who has just completed her studies and now has the power to progress to a life not just of professional success but also any kind of romance she chooses down the line. Of course, such things are also frightening; each new step one takes in life is fraught with risk. In swoops Christian Grey, a young billionaire who tells Anastasia point blank that he can offer her freedom. What kind of freedom? “Freedom of responsibility, freedom from making decisions.” Yes, those are quotes, this is Christian’s actual pitch. If this were a summer blockbuster, Christian would be going by the name of Loki and be leading an alien invasion.

Anastasia may be naïve and inexperienced, but she has all the characteristics of someone who is capable of facing the world on her own terms. But gosh darn it, life is hard and wouldn’t it be nice to just have a rich guy swoop in and make all the decisions for you? And if he demands sex be on his terms alone, well that’s just his right isn’t it?

And let’s be honest, Christian Grey is not just about power, he’s about money. Would millions of people see him as a catch if instead of a billionaire CEO he were just a really handsome bartender?

In all of this, it should be noted that Anastasia’s roommate Kate is actually having what appears to be a healthy relationship with Christian’s brother, Elliot (Luke Grimes). They meet at the bar, hit it off and go back to her place to fool around. It’s not just a one night stand however, as later on she goes out on a date with the younger Grey brother while Anastasia is left to wait on whatever Christian wants. As far as the FIFTY SHADES novels go, I had only read portions of the first one before fits of hysterical laughter made it impossible to continue. For all I know, Elliot could turn out to be a serial killer as the series goes on. But here, he seems to be treating his girlfriend with decency. It’s likely the filmmakers noted how much healthier this relationship plays out, which might be why they drop it from the narrative midway through, hoping the audience will forget about it.

I do not want to paint myself as a conservative man who believes relationships can only have one dynamic. It’s true, BDSM doesn’t do much for me but for millions of others, that’s what works. Studies have repeatedly shown that consenting adults who engage in actual BDSM relationships are healthy psychologically speaking, sometimes much healthier than the rest of us. But again, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is not about a healthy BDSM relationship. If I sound like I’m harping on this subject, it is not due to any moral outrage, but because the film does not seem to know how these relationships work and instead confuses stalking and psychological abuse with adventurous eroticism.

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We’ve covered how Christian started the relationship by stalking Anastasia and he continues to do so throughout the rest of the film. When she visits her parents for the weekend, he shows up unannounced, all but dragging her away. In one of the most terrifying scenes, Christian reacts to Anastasia blowing him off by breaking into her apartment and all but attacking her, warning her, “Don’t make a sound.” In both of these scenes, the film portrays Christian’s behavior as romantic and uses Anastasia’s acquiescence to defend itself.

To see the film’s ignorance on its own subject matter, one need look no further than the sex itself. After all this build-up, you might expect some major kink. But what do we get? Christian blindfolds Anastasia, and ties her up. He uses a flogger so lightly, it would never leave any marks. Also, there’s some light spanking. For crying out loud, I’ve done that and believe me when I say my sexual adventures could never fill three novels. It’s only with one ridiculous moment, meant to be the darkest part of the film that things ever seem to escalate. Otherwise, there are no ball gags, no nipple clamps. As far as aberrant sexual behavior goes, this stuff is strictly amateur hour.

So, from every possible storytelling standpoint, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is a mess. What is shocking is how much care has gone into making the film look at feel as professional as possible. As far as the two leads are concerned, Dornan has all the charisma of Josh Duhamel, which is to say that he is a handsome but empty shell. This may be due to the way the character is written; Dornan doesn’t exactly get a chance to shine here. In contrast, Johnson is quite impressive. Other reviews have made her out to be the second coming and while I’m not prepared to go that far, she does act circles around Dornan. Johnson gives Anastasia a number of endearing characteristics and fleshes out a character that needed some expanding. She gifts Anastasia with an emotional range that is meant to enhance the storyline but in effect makes it seem all the more disturbing.

The film looks gorgeous, with David Wasco’s production design being aided exquisitely by Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography. One would never guess that this was a story that began as a piece of internet fan fiction. It’s been given the grade-A treatment all the way.

But no matter how great the film looks and no matter how much the lead actress tries to inject life into the stiff characters, films don’t get more misguided than FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. There is a tone deafness that occupies every facet of this film. The film doesn’t know what relationships, even kinky relationships, consist of. The only question seems to be whether the film’s ignorance is willful or not.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is presented as erotic romance, but instead plays like a psychological horror film. Instead of being a princess waiting to be swept off her feet, Anastasia Steele comes across as the classic Final Girl. And every sensible person in the audience should be yelling at the screen, “Don’t be stupid! Run away! He’s crazy!”  Awful.

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RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.

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