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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

It's hard to know where to start to write Fifty Shades of Grey. I was interested in the entire book/film project because it is about sado-masochism, an area I am more than familiar with because of my days working in the skin industry. However, I did not read the book because I was warned away by too many reviews and essays lampooning its horrible prose. That would be time I could spend reading other books. But a movie is only two hours, and besides, it might be sexy.

It is a phenomenon of sorts. I saw many young women reading it, including two different teenage lifeguards at my pool. What drew them to the book must have been the taboo nature of it, which draws most boys to visual pornography (that, and something to whack off to--I doubt girls were reading this while masturbating). The world of S&M and B&D is a highly misunderstood one, and I have no idea if E.L. James' book was enlightening at all.

But as for the film, I found it much better than I thought it would be. The story of a mousy young woman who comes under the thrall of a tall, dark handsome billionaire has seeped into our pop culture, and while the film, especially at the beginning, panders to absurd fantasies, I found it got a lot right about the psychology of this lifestyle while at the same time not giving in and ridiculing it.

I give credit here to Sam Taylor-Johnson. She is not some hack (imagine if Adrian Lyne or Zalman King had directed this); her first film, Nowhere Boy, was a thoughtful look at the teenage years of John Lennon. She has clearly taken what may be literary garbage but dressed it up into something more profound. It's not a great movie, but I don't think it's the train wreck it could have been.

The early part of the film is pure romance-novel stuff, though. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a virgin, a stereotypical English Lit major who doesn't know how to dress and drives a VW Beetle. She is substituting for her roommate when she interviews Christian Grey (Jamie Dorman), an absurdly-young billionaire who is at first amused by Johnson but then sees something, perhaps her submissive nature, that attracts him. His office is all chrome and steel (the very first image of the film is his dressing room, with a series of identical suits and and shirts and ties that differ only in their shade of gray). Women who look like models are his staff, but as he courts Johnson he tells he he doesn't do romance, and his tastes are more singular.

It turns out he has a "play room" in his penthouse suite that is full of state-of-the-art bondage and discipline accessories.  Johnson is a bit put off but is still attracted to him, and the rest of the movie is about him trying to get her to sign a contract and be his submissive. Wrangling over a legal document is not exactly romantic (but is straight out of Venus in Fur), but it did provide for a few laughs, such as when Johnson adamantly insists that "anal fisting" be stricken and asks, "What's a butt plug?"

While all this is going on I wondered if they would hit upon the central themes of the urge to be dominant or submissive. The most simple reason is to reverse one's role in normal life--most submissives are people who have power in their life, and seek to give it up in an attempt to free themselves, while dominants may be powerless people who seek to grab some in a sexual manner. But that's just the simple version. One aspect of the film I appreciated was that Dorman has a backstory that jibes with the psychology--he was seduced as a teenager and was a submissive. Many players in this world can slide between top and bottom.

I also liked the way the film showed that in some respects, it is the submissive who calls the shots. This is called topping from below, and Johnson does a nice job with how she toys with Dorman, making him frantic as he wants to sign that contract. They have vanilla sex, and she gets him to do things he never has done before, such as sleep in the same bed with her, or take her on helicopter rides (that Grey is a billionaire is a shame, because it brings money into it--does she secretly like that he can buy her first editions of Tess of the D'Urbervilles? It would have been more interesting if he was an average Joe).

The film treats S&M fanciers as odd but not freaks. But the end takes a sour twist (it is an obvious set up for the next film). She wants to know why he would want to hurt her, and asks to be shown the worst. He gives her "six of the best" with a belt, which is pretty mild in the S&M world, and she is horrified, and leaves him (the last shot is as the elevator doors are closing). But before that we get all sorts of soft-core porn with her in naked in bondage and being spanked or teased. The ending shows what a submissive would enjoy (I've known women who love getting whipped, and like to have welts to prove it). Clearly Anastasia is not a true submissive, which means what have we been watching all this time?

For those uninterested in this sexual variation, this film may be laughable. It is just soft-core porn, but like any genre, there are levels of good and bad, and this is good, for what it is. Dorman is no help--he is a model that has basic soap-opera-acting skills but rarely elevates beyond a himbo (it's hard to believe he's some kind of Mark Zuckerberg character). I did find it sexy--Johnson is blandly pretty, so it's not hard to believe she could be a virgin, and I bought most of her responses.

I am intrigued enough by the film to want to see the next one, but I still won't read the books.

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