Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle
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Is your crush exhibiting every red flag on the list? But he’s hot as hell, with a body like a sweat-dripped fireman calendar? Then that’s what we call a free pass, because who has the time to worry about whether he’ll skin you and wear you like a flesh onesie when you’re cruising around in your brand new Audi A3?
This is the strange lesson of Fifty Shades of Grey. Those who focused their despondency on the novel’s prose – or, perturbingly, sought offense in the idea that women might want to publicly express their sexual desires instead of keeping them locked-up in a Carrie-style Jesus closet – ignored the real, disturbing issue, which lies at the centre of this international sensation: it’s a toxic narrative. It’s a story that deeply misunderstands its subject, the veiled word of BDSM, and, in turn, unwittingly fetishes an abusive relationship.
BDSM is founded on that critical notion of mutuality. Those who desire to control find their match in those who desire to be controlled. Pleasure is found at both ends of the spectrum, and mutual consent forms the commandment of its very practice. Yet this is a notion seemingly lost on author E.L. James, and on the cinematic adaptation of her work: Christian Grey (Dornan) is a man who deigns it acceptable to exercise control when consent clearly hasn’t been given.
It’s there long before the story’s infamous sexual contract: Anastasia (Johnson) does not consent to Christian turning up uninvited, telling her she’s drunk too much, taking her back to his home when she passes out and undressing her without her knowledge. Neither does Anastasia consent to him breaking into her house, so he can further pressure her into accepting his offer of a sub/dom relationship. Stripped of the fantasies of silk sheets and helicopter rides, Grey’s behaviour is textbook abuse. And the implications of romanticising those actions are startling obvious.
Yet, oddly, it appears as if most of those involved in its cinematic adaptation would agree. Between Kelly Marcel’s screenplay and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction, those scenes, which take place far from the bedroom, seem often uncomfortable, almost ashamed; actors dimly lit against backdrops of distracting greenery or blinding city lights. Anything that might swerve the audience’s attention from the actions committed by its characters. Dakota Johnson manages to deliver something bordering on a meta-performance; her blatant passive aggression towards the entire situation pushing her character to stand almost outside of herself, acknowledging that Christian has the makings of a psycho killer, yet lacking the will to alter the course of a story that must inevitably push her into his arms.
It’s behind closed doors that this team at least finds their ties to the source material a little loosened, allowing Anastasia to transform from the limp victim of a psychotic control freak and into a young woman on the verge of great discovery. Negotiating her sexual contract to the charmingly lop-sided notes of a Danny Elfman score, she recognises its absurdity, while still exercising her own sense of control by teasing Christian with what he may keep and what must be struck out of the deal.
As she discards her virginity, the camera pans upwards to a ceiling mirror, which enshrines her sexual awakening like the Sistine Chapel of boning; she’s lightly whipped to the sounds of choral church hymns, tied to the headboard, as if echoing some deeply ironic parody of the flagellation of Christ. In these moments, Taylor-Johnson attempts to mould her work towards an aesthetic portrait of sex; one that acknowledges the entirety of its outrageous, transcendental nature. It’s just a shame no amount of artistry could erase the pit which lies at the centre of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Fifty Shades of Grey is now available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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