After you’ve seen Fifty Shades of Grey, come back and listen to Amanda Hess, Dan Kois, and Dana Stevens discuss the film in Slate’s Spoiler Special:
If you come to Fifty Shades of Grey looking for true kink, you will have come to the wrong place. You’ll get peacock feathers and satiny blindfolds, horsehair whips better for tickling than flogging and, of course, many expensive silk ties. The Fifty Shades phenomenon (and that would include the three novels in E.L. James’s trilogy plus this film and its already-in-the-works sequels) may have courted controversy for its exploration of a dom-sub relationship, but Story of O (or even Secretary, for that matter) this is not.
If anything, Fifty Shades of Grey is a generic romance cynically engineered to appeal to the lowest common denominator of female fantasy. A virginal college student named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), whose mousy bookishness belies her bodice-ripping name (she goes by Ana), finds herself drawn to Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a young billionaire whom she interviews for her school newspaper. Christian is ravenously attracted to her, too, though his sexual proclivities are such that not only doesn’t he “do the girlfriend thing,” he also doesn’t have sex unless it involves the whispering of sweet safe words.
But this time things are different. Christian is so taken with Ana that he deflowers her with “vanilla sex,” something he’s never had in his life—therefore kind of making him a virgin, too. He even tolerates—possibly enjoys—the post-coital pancakes she whips up in the morning. There, as the sun bathes the steely kitchen in flattering, hopeful light, the tableau of every woman’s fondest dream is realized: a romantic night with a sexy if possibly demented stranger, followed by a Maxwell House commercial.
It’s a class-A fantasy. He’s trouble, but she’s special enough to change him, an end she achieves largely via the kind of coy rebuffing techniques championed by books like The Rules. He may be buying her expensive gifts (a computer, an Audi, a first-edition copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles), flying her around in his helicopter, and showing up stalkerishly-cum-telepathically when she’s trying to go about her normal life, but she’s savvy enough to feign indifference.
Johnson does the best she can with a script that sends her character lurching between doormat and sassy back-talker. She tempers Ana’s raw vulnerability with enough dignity that we have to admire the gamesmanship she brings to playing hard to get. She’s good at it, and the rewards are greater than any helicopter ride. Christian is soon driven so crazy by Ana that he starts to do real boyfriend things. He visits her at her scrappy student apartment. He meets her stepdad at her graduation. He dances with her in his living room to Frank Sinatra. Eventually he even introduces her to his parents, who have never once met any woman he’s been involved with.
Oh my God, ladies, are you dying?
Fifty Shades of Grey feels in many ways like a steroid-infused production of The Bachelor. Not so much wooden as cardboard, Christian is less a fully (or even partially) realized character than a symbol of the kind of generic, wholly unimaginative interpretation of “extreme wealth” we tend to see on reality television. Dornan has one of those faces that makes you think you might have face blindness. Every time he appears in a scene, there’s a split second of wondering if it’s him or someone else. Needless to say that doesn’t bode well for presence in the boudoir. (Though swap Dornan out for Max Martini, who plays his quietly charismatic driver, and you might have something.)
There are, if you will, three shades of pornography in Fifty Shades of Grey. The first, and dullest, consists of the sex scenes themselves, which are essentially a series of music videos depicting strategically lit, mildly transgressive erotic adventures accompanied by the plangent wails of Beyoncé and Jessie Ware. (The soundtrack pretty much steals the film.)
The second is the movie’s hot, naked display of wealth. Christian’s nebulous business enterprise, Grey Industries, is conspicuously headquartered, Flynt Publications–style, in a sleek office tower called Grey House. His apartment in the luxury Seattle high-rise Escala is all travertine floors and twinkling cityscape views. He owns innumerable suits and several Audis. He parks his Eurocopter right on the roof. (In the inevitable South Park spoof, he’ll overshoot the landing pad and impale the vessel on the Space Needle.) Depending on your taste in vehicles and home decor, all this might be worth the ticket price.
Ultimately, though, what’s smuttiest about the movie is the way Christian’s “dominance” involves fewer direct orders than emo pandering. He may be a slave master, but his commands often suggest he’s been secretly reading Our Bodies, Ourselves. “You have a beautiful body,” he barks. “I want you unashamed of your nakedness. Do you understand?”
Even the infamous “contract,” a lengthy agreement, drawn up by Christian, outlining what Ana will and will not do as a submissive, proves so negotiable and prone to deal-sweeteners that it’s almost a piece of erotica unto itself. After Ana takes certain (not necessarily comfortable, though not necessarily all that exotic, either) sex acts off the table, Christian offers to throw in a once-a-week “real date” like “regular people.” To see the look on her face, you’d think he just slid a diamond tennis bracelet across the table. Or a small Audi.
In this age of affirmative-consent laws and widespread debate about the definition of rape and sexual violence, there’s something odd—or maybe oddly perfect—about a dangerous, deviant lothario who says things like, “I’m not going to touch you, not until I have your written consent.” No doubt, right now there are untold numbers of gender studies majors writing papers about how all sex is transactional, and the dom-sub dynamic explored in Fifty Shades simply places the inherent inequities of any physically intimate interaction in high relief.
But that would be overthinking things. And since neither the film nor the book upon which it’s based go to any such trouble, it’s probably best to evaluate both on their own terms. To that end, Fifty Shades of Grey is a movie about Audis, marble floors, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. And if you see only one film this year about Audis, marble floors, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, you could do a lot worse than this one.
More 50 Shades:
“Anastasia Steele Leans In,” by Hanna Rosin
“Fifty Shades of Grey Is Not a ‘Good’ Movie. I Loved It.” by Amanda Hess