Film Review: Fifty Shades of Grey | Moronic Masochism (co-written with Lauren Wark)

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Note: For this movie review, we here at Quail Bell Magazine are going to be trying something different. This time, we had two Quail Bell writers, Alex Carrigan and Lauren Wark, look at the same movie and review it, in hopes of adding to the discussion of the film. This is their review of the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Alex Carrigan: Fifty Shades of Grey is something that defies our notions of what becomes popular. When you think about how the book and film came into existence, it can be somewhat hard to believe that such a product could happen. The book, written by E.L. James, was based off Twilight fanfiction she wrote and later edited to make an original story. The series has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, thus leading to the inevitable highly anticipated film version. It’s quite astounding that a successful franchise could emerge like this, and it does lead to questions about where we’re going to find popular new media as well as the impact from this kind of novel. Could we finally get a film adaptation of My Immortal?

Fifty Shades of Grey follows Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson), a soon-to-be college grad as she meets 27 year old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for an interview. After their initial meet cute and other encounters, Christian reveals that he has a specific set of demands if he and Ana are going to have a relationship. By signing a contract, Ana will allow Christian to control aspects of her life and allow herself to be the submissive in a BDSM relationship. What follows is a tale about compromise, where Ana allows Christian to do various things to her in exchange for the material pleasures that come from dating a billionaire.

I haven’t read the series itself. Most of my education from the series came from reading responses people had to the franchise. I saw critiques of passages from the book from this Tumblr, which gave me an idea of the writing style and the subject material. I then saw all the parody versions of the story, mostly from celebrities or people with funny voices reading some of the dirtier passages in complete seriousness (Charles Dance’s version is my favorite of these). One of my parents read the whole series, and is probably the closest person to me who admitted to reading the books. Because of this, my initial thoughts on the series were based entirely on how other people were reacting to the series, which could skew how I approached the film.

How about you, Lauren? How did you become aware of the franchise?

Lauren Wark: I have had family and friends read the novel. I knew the series had to be huge when my cousins in rural Rapides Parish in Louisiana had read it. Overwhelmed by all the hype loitering my social media accounts, I began to read articles on the movie and the book series. I watched interviews with the stars, Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, as well as E.L. James. Then I completely buckled under my own curiosity and read the entire series from some online source on my iPhone in maybe five days.

Alex, what were your thoughts entering into the theater? How did your predictions meet your observations?

AC: Well, I was smart enough to see a daytime show for cheaper tickets and in a large theater where I could go to the back and know no one else would sit in the same row as me. From what little crowd I did see, it was pretty much the audience I was expecting for viewers seeing a Valentine’s Day weekend movie. It consisted almost entirely of middle aged women in groups of three or more and couples on an afternoon date.

Going into the movie, I was worried I was going to be biased against it. When I told people I was going to see this movie, their reactions ranged from “why would you support this movie?” to “it’s not worth it. No movie review is worth seeing Fifty Shades of Grey.” I don’t really think anyone was happy about me seeing the movie, with the majority of people being dissenters of the franchise who didn’t want to see anyone support it. The fans of the series were concerned I wasn’t going to be fair to the book, assuming that my reactions to the fan base and what I had read would cloud my judgement.

However, I believe in judging things fairly, so I knew I’d have to judge this movie based on its credentials. I could take in what I had researched from before, but still look at how the movie presented the controversial aspects of the series. This meant looking up BDSM practitioners’ responses to the series to reading interviews from the stars to reading behind-the-scenes details, such as E.L. James’ constant fighting with director Sam Taylor-Johnson. I even had to go in and see if Johnson and Dornan really lacked the chemistry that their Glamour interview suggested. I could take in all the discussions surrounding the movie, but at the end of the day, what mattered was what the movie presented.

How about you? Were you at all concerned that you’d be unable to review this movie fairly?

LW: I observed the same demographics. A “sexy” movie is an obvious Valentine’s Day choice. The only notable odd sighting was a mother with her teen daughters. I am not sure I would take my teenage daughters to see this film.

Going into the theater, I had major concerns. I worried about the fledgling director and just how much artistry she would bring to the film. I wondered how they would interpret E.L. James’ poor dialogue into the screenplay. I, like every other individual who invested the time in reading the series, entered hesitantly, knowing I would walk away perturbed by all dismissed details. I, like you, was also apprehensive of how chemistry between the actors would or wouldn’t show. I read an interview just before seeing the movie detailing Dornan and Johnson’s own reservations about the violence. I think their reactions as the role players of the film’s role play are very telling of the domestic violence arguments. As for the BDSM, I agree with the critics, the series is not a decent depiction. It actually has very little to do with BDSM.

Alex, let’s delve into the mechanics of the film before ripping into the carnage. How did you feel about the directing, the editing?

AC: Oh god, seeing an erotic movie with family is the worst, most awkward thing imaginable. Why would anyone willingly do that?

Anyways, this is a word I’m probably going to throw out a lot in this review when describing the movie, but it’s how I feel about a lot of the film’s creative choices. You ask me to describe the direction, editing, and so forth, and I say it’s this: competent. “Competent” is fine when you’re a somewhat green director adapting a book that has very little in the way of action or specific design. The problem with “competent” is that it does mean one other terrible thing: “boring.”

The movie wasn’t shot terribly, but there were a lot of static, safe choices made when they shot each scene. Most of the film is composed of medium shots of the two leads, which isn’t challenging, but also not very inspired or memorable. The city shots of Seattle look like any movie that shoots in Seattle that rents a helicopter and flies around for an afternoon. Even scenes when the characters are in a helicopter or airplane look fairly banal and could really be in any other movie.

I think what really got me was all the times when they tried to do creative shots and it failed in some way. I did notice some weird attempts to make the image on screen “mean something,” such as a low shot of Ana riding an elevator up to Christian’s office to discuss their sex contract. Generally, low shots are used to make the person on screen look more powerful, which is kind of weird when we’re about to see a woman sign away her autonomy to some guy she barely knows.

I also noticed this weird attempt at Freudian imagery, or an attempt to focus on body parts to mean something. When Ana first goes to Christian’s office, there’s a shot of her looking up at the large, phallic skyscraper, making her look minuscule by comparison. This is followed by numerous moments where she takes a “Grey” stamped pencil and puts it up to her mouth. There’s also numerous shots of hands, which I recently saw eviscerated in this article, that’s probably there to show who is in control and who is surrendering control (For example: Ana’s hands are tied with cuffs, while Christian’s hold a paddle).

Really, I didn’t think there was anything that special about the directing or editing in this film. If anything, the film looked so average that there were times I felt I could be more privy to weird lines of dialogue or images. Did you feel that way too? Was there anything that really made you feel uncomfortable?

LW: Your assessment of the cinematography is as good as mine! it was unoriginal and unimaginative with random, hideous attempts at being artful.

The phallic imagery was totally contrived. No girl nervously puts a pencil to her lip! We are all very aware of phallic imagery and what putting that long, cylindrical form next to our mouths says to a male, just refer to Cher’s explanation of that in Clueless.

One of the first editing atrocities, I noted was the music! The score was melodramatic and misapplied, diminishing its integrity. The songs  made for the movie by popular artists were haphazardly thrown in, fading in and out and sliced with the skill of a noob. I, a person with absolutely no education in sound editing for film, noticed the soundtrack. Therein lies the problem. If you notice something, the artist has failed to consume you by the narrative portrayed.

As for outright uncomfortable scenes, I was crawling with laughter during the “‘de-virginization’ of Ana” scene. The above mirror shot was both awkward and awful, as it was stagnant and extraneous. Pair that with the close up of the Caspian Sea painting out of context, and the audience communes in one fit of uncomfortable laughter.

The dialogue was the artless creation of an amateur author. I have to give it to Dornan and Johnson though. They gave it their all!

Alex, you mentioned the phallic imagery. Bouncing off of that point, I noticed two problematic motifs, which were hypersexualized fantasies of deflowering the virgin and saving the tortured soul. What are your feelings on these motifs as they relate to reality?

AC:  I did notice the music too. I did groan when I realized they were opening with a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” I also do really like the Ellie Goulding song that’s on the soundtrack (because Ellie Goulding is a fairy goddess and you can’t convince me to not like her), even though I found the placement of it kind of weird. Nothing supports a romantic song called “Love Me Like You Do” than showing a guy taking a woman to his sex room via helicopter. Even the remix of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” was placed strangely in the first time Christian and Ana go wild in the red room. I feel like whoever had to put the songs in thought “these sound romantic, I think it will work here,” based solely on what the song titles were.

I’ll admit, the sex scenes were painful to watch. For one, there was always something that took me out of the scenes, so I couldn’t take them seriously. I found myself distracted by odd details, like why would a billionaire obsessed with image have such uneven body hair? Why doesn’t he wax his treasure trail? There was a moment where Ana was stripping to her underwear and I realized she had a wedgie. Also, on top of everything this guy is capable of, he knows how to french braid a woman’s hair, which made me laugh. Did this guy learn to french braid hair just for when he brings women into his red room? What was that like? Did he research it on Google? Did he practice on someone? How long did it take for him to master it? It’s elements like this that make it hard for me to let myself go in the scene.

I do think there was a problematic message in how the movie handled the intimacy between Ana and Christian. First, it didn’t make sense in character. Christian keeps shoving this contract in Ana’s face, one that can’t actually be legally enforced, and she never signs it. He also claims he doesn’t make love but “fucks. Hard.” Five minutes later, he makes love with Ana because she’s a virgin. The staging made it look pretty romantic, despite his weird insistence that he doesn’t do romance and the fact that her confession to being a virgin was treated as if she admitted to committing war crimes.

I think character motivation is why these sex scenes lost me. Christian is constantly making decisions as the “dom” to Ana’s “submissive,” constantly insisting that he can’t do things like go out to dinner with her or having simple, missionary position sex. Even if he does have a warped view of sex due to his background, it seems like needless drama. Ana wants him to be this guy, but he isn’t willing to compromise simply because he doesn’t want to. “I don’t do…” became such an empty statement and didn’t seem like it asserted any real authority on his part. I lost it later in the film when he insisted Ana was changing him because I saw absolutely no evidence of that. He was still the same controlling, emotionally distant guy he was before he started dating her. We don’t know a lot about how this guy acted before dating her, so however Ana changed him (which I’m still trying to figure out because I thought Ana, while a nice woman, wasn’t really that interesting a person) wasn’t readily apparent.

This I think ties into the larger issues people have with this story and how it portrays sexuality. The relationship depicted is bureaucratic and standard, as if this was a relationship from medieval times. Christian offers goods (a laptop, a car, excursions in aircraft, fine meals, etc.), and Ana accepts, giving him her body and autonomy in the process. Considering the entire deal was done with contracts and boardroom discussions (the boardroom meeting where they discuss amendments to the contract was lit to look like they were in Hell), there was a sort of lifeless quality to the proceedings. I didn’t feel like I was watching two people in love or watching a relationship naturally form, I thought I was watching a farmer negotiating the price of  a cow to a butcher.

It disturbs me because people are treating this like some great romance. There’s people who want to date a Christian Grey or want to become an Anastasia Steele. There’s report of an increase in people buying rope to try BDSM because of the book and film. This suggests that more women are hoping to be dominated in the bedroom and are willing to let their men control them and abuse them under the guise of kink. Now, BDSM can be something healthy and enjoyable, but Fifty Shades takes all the fun and excitement out of it and makes it into something rigid and grim. You can’t really lose yourself in these scenes because you have to remind yourself that Christian had to basically buy Ana’s body for these scenes to happen. Of course, there’s a chance people will ignore that and think that a relationship is all about giving and taking (and not just that kind of giving and taking) with no sense of humanity or warmth.

This brings me to my next real concern. Lauren, did you think there was any reason to want to see this relationship continue? Did you care at all for the story being depicted?

LW: First, I would like to acknowledge the issues in storytelling. All of your questions are answered in the book. The omissions, caught by anyone who has read the book, exaggerates the relationship so that it becomes and unbelievable caricature of the relationship portrayed in the novel. Honestly, the movie version of the characters and their relationship is so different from the book that I struggle to compromise the two and understand why the director would choose to accentuate the violence. I am not sure if the result was intentional or accidental by way of editing and the need to keep the film short. The film successfully simplifies very complicated concepts that I shudder to consider E.L. James handled with more care. There were so many conversations left out of the narrative that proved vital to the escalation of their relationship, however strange.

The relationship serves the ultimate patriarchal fantasy. Ana is to be completely submissive and endlessly accepting of Christian’s emotional incompetencies. She is to be possessed and controlled by Christian at all times and somehow it is for her pleasure? These are the makings of domestic violence. There is a delusional fantasy devoid of its practical reality that ultimately serves the man and his will for dominance. This film advertises itself as a romance and feeds an impressionable audience with a feudal revival.

As for the BDSM, I have my questions. My reading from the book and articles tells me that “sadism” is no longer an accepted psychology term. I do understand that there is a fine line between pain and pleasure, but there are parts of this fetish that go too far for me. I do not believe gagging and caning can be pleasurable. I, like Ana, would balk at trusting a man who wanted to inflict pain on me for arousal.

Alex, my greatest contention with the issues within Fifty Shades of Grey highlighted by the media is that there is no discussion on survivors of child abuse! The film alludes to Christian Grey’s fetish as being result of child abuse. How accurate is the portrayal of Christian as a survivor and what should we expect from him? He is 27 and at a crucial climax in his life. He has had the time to cope with his past and his future now beckons him.

AC: This is where I bring back the word “competent.” The film isn’t edgy or daring in what it’s doing, no matter how the commercials frame it. It think it’s being edgy and daring by being a mainstream film about BDSM, controlling relationships, the effects of child abuse, and so on, but it fails. Why? Because it’s simply trying to pass as an adaptation.

The film does remove a few of the problematic elements of the book (the tampon scene will not be missed), but the real issue is that it’s never trying to go beyond the source material. It’s taking a “shocking” source material and making a safe adaptation out of it. No one looked at this story and thought “hey, what if we did this instead?” or “what if we added something new?” Everyone was content to leave the story as-is, and that only highlights how it fails as a work of drama and a work of erotica.

Yes, Christian is a victim of child abuse, and there is the implication that the abuse shaped who is he to where he has a perverse idea of relationships and sex, making it difficult for him to connect emotionally with Ana. No, they do not attempt to make this a morality tale or even try to make a grander statement about child abuse. There’s an attempt to suggest Christian has some repressed issues, such as his mother being a crack addict and the constant jokes about the woman who took his virginity being “Mrs. Robinson,” but it’s never used to make a moral. The marketing of the film is all about how hot and steamy this relationship is, but never suggests that it’s problematic at its core. They want you to think these elements shaped Christian into who he is, but it barely makes an effort to treat this as a romantic tragedy. Christian can’t be the man Ana wants him to be, and Ana can’t be fulfilled by such an emotionally stunted man. That’s such an interesting angle to go at, but as the sequels demonstrate, that’s not the story they wanted to tell.

This is where the film’s competency works against it: you don’t actually have to see this movie. Yes, it’s part of a larger cultural phenomenon and is one of the most talked about books in this day and age. But there’s nothing unique or interesting about the story. Ana and Christian are boring, flat characters. There’s no drama or stakes in anything that happens. There isn’t even an attempt to make it deconstructive of erotic storytelling or stories about power struggles.

When I was watching this movie, all I could think about were films that handled this material better. There’s plenty of erotic movies with dark undertones and subtext that do a much better job at engaging and entertaining than this one. If you want a movie about how a purely sexual relationship fails, watch Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses or Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs. If you want a movie about characters turning abuse into a sexual thrill, watch Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter or Pedro Almodóvar’s Pepi, Luci, Bom. If you want to watch a movie all about power struggles in a relationship and conflicts of ideology, watch Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire or Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. If you want to see a movie all about a couple falling apart despite their attempts to keep things going, you could easily watch Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine or Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color.  In all of these movies, sex is more than just for titillation, but something that is used to make grander statements about humanity, love, relationships, power, and so on.

The point is that there’s no need to see this movie. If you’re a fan of the book, you’re going to get a boring, lifeless adaptation with no real passion or energy. If you’re someone hoping to find something to mock, you’re going to find a film that’s not even the fun kind of bad like Troll 2 orThe Room. Fifty Shades of Grey is a limp movie, but it’s got 100 million fans that are ensuring two more movies are made and that it will probably break box office records this weekend. I honestly feel that if this didn’t have such a following, it would be pushed aside and forgotten really easily.

How about you, Lauren? Any final thoughts, and do you think there are any movies people could watch instead that are similar to this one?

LW: I agree with you that this movie never set to do anything with the story, that it is just another example or playing with each material for the sake of pushing the envelope without saying anything socially. Nevertheless, the romanticization of child abuse leaves a bad taste in my mouth. That is just one other difficult issue tossed around the movie idly. Child abuse is not a tool to make your character more interesting; it is a grave injustice that demands care.

The fandom behind this novel astonishes me as it has no merit, but is there much merit in anything popular today? We bask in all things superficial, from The Kardashians to Snapchat. We want instant, empty gratification. The global inability to acquire an attention span contributes perhaps the most ironic, incidental joke told by Fifty Shades, even the main character, Ana, to whom each viewer willfully donates two hours of their time would never read the series or watch the movies herself! Fifty Shades of Grey is a far cry Classic English Literature. However, it does land somewhere close to the debasement in any song by the Weeknd and sexy selfies with feigned artistry on Instagram.

For me, this movie could have possibly set out to do  much more with the narrative framework built by EL James, but instead it becomes a suitable successor to the Twilight series.. The hopeful swoon sought after by romantics and the sex starved never arrives as it is deterred by ill treated editing, kicking viewers right of the fantasy. The cynics seeking to laugh at how wretched the film is will be defeated by clusterfuck of inelegance eliciting more squirming and silent dialogue than gutted guffawing. The critic is left with a movie where those behind the film didn’t even succeed in spinning up a light porn film with a slightly more developed story line. No social issues thrust the story into transcending its Twilight fandom beginnings. Instead, viewers are handed the same tired, simple, chauvinist, supposedly romantic narrative of the dominant male corrupting the virgin.

AC: I once heard that if you take an element out of a character and the character can’t function without that element, it’s not a fully really realized character. Take away Christian’s child abuse, and we still are left with a character we know nothing about and have no reason to want to know more about. Take away the BDSM element from the story, and you have a generic, lifeless romance. That’s the real issue with this movie and franchise: there’s nothing that really makes it great, and because it fails in its attempts at being deep, it’s only contributing to a poor understanding of difficult subject matter like child abuse and fetish. This will probably make it hard to keep the series on anyone’s mind years from now.

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