Is ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ breaking new ground?

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Valentine’s Day is devoted to romance.  Traditionally, it is celebrated with chocolates, flowers, and other symbols of love. Typically, Hollywood launched a quintessentially romantic film to mark the occasion.

However, this year, scouring the movie listings will reveal no such cinematic tribute to limerence. Instead, just in time for Valentine’s Day, Hollywood offered “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The film is dominated by whips, chains, hand bindings, and various other accoutrements of sadomasochism.

The film revolves around twenty-four old Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). He’s a tall, strapping, conventionally handsome fellow. He also happens to be a billionaire businessman. Just for good measure, Christian owns a fleet of vintage cars and his personal helicopter, which he personally pilots.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a college senior at Washington State University, who is majoring in English literature. Her best friend and roommate, Kate Kavanaugh (Eloise Mumford), is scheduled to interview Christian for the school newspaper. However, Kate comes down with the flu. Does she notify her editor and allow him to assign another staff writer? No way-she simply asks her roomie to fill in for her. It apparently doesn’t matter to her that Anastasia isn’t a journalist and has never conducted an interview.

Full of apprehension, Anastasia shows up at the Grey Enterprises tower, which houses Christian’s sprawling business. She has a mousy affect and is dressed like a frumpy librarian. Anastasia contrasts starkly with the company’s cadre of leggy female assistants, who are titivated in provocative outfits.

As Anastasia enters Christian’s office, she clumsily trips and falls onto the floor.  Christian is hovering over her. Is this a not so subtle portent of the dominant-submissive relationship that will ensue between them?

Anastasia is carrying a list of questions, prepared by Kate. However, her ineptitude as an interviewer becomes painfully apparent. She simply doesn’t have a clue.

Although Christian is surrounded by a bevy of pulchritudinous hotties, there is apparently something so singular about Anastasia that he becomes smitten with her. Doesn’t this pander to a female fantasy? Perhaps, some fabulously wealthy hunk will recognize the hidden virtue in them that is unappreciated by other men?

It would seem that Christian’s compendium of attributes would make him quite a catch for lucky gal. Not so fast — Christian embodies a few qualities that are not immediately apparent. For one thing, Christian eschews the notion of having a romantic relationship. He doesn’t even go out on dates.  As he brusquely puts it, “I don’t do romance.”

When Anastasia visits Christian’s deluxe bachelor pad, she is in for a big surprise. Christian gives her a tour of his abode. He advises her that his playroom is on the other side of the door. She naively asks him what’s inside — his Xbox?

Christian explains that he has a very specific set of needs. They are satisfied by sadomasochistic activities. Christian disclaims that he is a practitioner of S&M. He insists that he is a dominant, who is seeking a female submissive. It was a distinction that I was able to grasp.

Anastasia has never done anything remotely wildly erotic. Indeed, even when it comes to standard sex, she is still a virgin. Will Anastasia be able to accommodate Christian’s unorthodox appetites? Can Christian satisfy her cravings for affection?

Viewers should not expect a definitive answer to these questions. Rather than providing a bona fide denouement, the film is abruptly truncated in anticipation of the two cinematic sequels. These have already been green lit.

As the film’s protagonist, Dornan broods constantly. A smile never crosses his lips. The most perfunctory laugh is totally out of the question. Even in moments of intimacy, he comes across as psychoemotionally detached and phlegmatic, rather than a tortured soul. As the female lead, Johnson is well cast as a sympathetic character, who blossoms as she struggles with a new set of sexual practices and a radically enhanced self-image.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is an adaptation of the first book of a trilogy by E.L. James, the literary cognomen of English television executive, Erika Mitchell. Inspired by “Twilight” series, James originally wrote fan fiction under the pen name, Snowqueen’s Icedragon. Her writings evolved into “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which was originally self-published and sold as an ebook. The rights to “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sequels, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Free” were acquired by Vintage Press. The novels were widely lambasted as poorly written mommy porn. Despite these castigations, the trilogy was translated into 52 languages and sold more than 100 million copies internationally.

The book has been adapted by Kelly Marcel. Her last screenplay, “Saving Mr. Banks,” depicted the dynamic between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, the author of “Mary Poppins.” Coincidentally, it also involved a dominant-submissive, mixed gender relationship, albeit one without an erotic component. Marcel’s writing represents a vast upgrade over E.L. James’ turgid prose.

Director, Sam Taylor-Johnson. has a background as a photographer and video artist. In 2009, she made her debut as a filmmaker with “Nowhere Boy.” It detailed the adolescent days of John Lennon and starred Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the one-time Beatle. The film’s then 19-year old star and 42-year old director became romantically involved and eventually married. Taylor-Johnson enhances the film with her sense of style and eye for aesthetics.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is stylish to a fault. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, production design by David Wasco, and score by Danny Elfman are all engaging. The film’s sound track includes such thematically matched tunes as Annie Lennox’s “I Put a Spell on You,” Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.”

“Fifty Shades of Grey” purports to offer a groundbreaking view of alternative sexual practices.  Despite all the brouhaha, the text of the film consists of pretty tame stuff.

Far more disturbing is the stark disparity of power between a rich, sophisticated  entrepreneur and the young focus of his attentions. Christian exploits it by foisting unsolicited gifts, including a new car, on Anastasia.

Christian only wants one small concession as a quid pro quo. Anastasia need only sign a formal contract with him. Under its terms, she will voluntarily waive her agency and willingly subjugate herself to being his sex slave. The film obfuscates some potentially interesting issues about free will and agency by interjecting a patina of faux romance onto a seemingly straightforward business arrangement.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” does break some new ground, but not nearly as much as some frenzied detractors have suggested. Potentially, the film may trigger a reexamination of what we arbitrarily define as sexually normative behavior.

In the interim, “Fifty Shades of Grey” marks the inclusion of soft-core sadomasochism porn into a mainstream Hollywood film.

“Fifty Shades of Grey”: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language) 125 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.




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