Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is the country's most eligible billionaire. When circumstance finds young literature student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) crossing paths with Grey, the encounter gives way to a very unexpected relationship. Turns out Mr. Grey has a very particular set of fetishes, and he very much wishes for Ms. Steele to be ingratiated into his elaborate world of kink.
There is nothing wrong with kink, and there is nothing wrong with a healthy sex life that includes the exploration of fetish. There is nothing wrong with romantic escapism that titillates and arouses. There is EVERYTHING wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey. There are those who will excuse, possibly even defend Fifty Shades as a harmless escape for female viewers who have long had to live in a world wherein pornography has been skewed toward men. Unshackle yourself from the illusion; this is not female fantasy, this is male fantasy. Point of fact, Fifty Shades of Grey borders on rape fantasy and the idea that anyone would derive enjoyment from watching this is abhorrent.
You're thinking I'm being too harsh? Reading too much into it? Let's examine the specifics revealed by the plot.
The film goes to absurd lengths to establish that the contract between Grey and Steele represents her consent. In fact, this is established through a long boardroom meeting scene that is probably the least sexy conversation about sex since your ninth-grade health class. The only thing fostered in their interactions is the idea that rich men can treat women any way they want, and that the word, “no” does not apply to them.Thing is, she NEVER signs the blasted thing. Steele is never certain she wants to be a part of this life, but every single time that she tells Grey "no" or refuses his advances, he refuses to keep his promise to leave her alone and instead turns up unannounced in her life, corners her, and emotionally manipulates her until he gets what he wants. She wants a relationship, and Grey holds her hostage emotionally until she gives in. And if that fails, he simply gets her into the "play room" and whips her into submission. It's as if she were a prisoner at Guantanamo Grey.
The problem is not that Fifty Shades has nothing to say about relationships - it doesn't have anything to say about relationships, but that's not the issue. Plenty of entertainment is intrinsically meritorious simply because it is entertaining, but this movie is anything but honest in its approach and downright dangerous to boot.
Fifty Shades has delusions of artiness and romance. It thinks that adding slow versions of pop songs and having Grey turn up to have sex with Steele in blue-lit rooms (which incidentally is nothing more than a repeated ploy to keep her from leaving when he knows full well he doesn't want to be with her) they have created genuine romance. Let us also not forget that the studio is releasing the movie on Valentine's Day, as if in some disgusting attempt to sell consent-free abuse and emotional torment as encouraged shared activities for couples.
The movie expects us to believe that through this forced sexual submission, the two leads are fostering understanding and intimacy. That's absolutely not the case, as Grey happily and excitedly beats Steele until she is weeping and then the very next scene is him still refusing to grant her any real human compassion as she once again tries to leave his penthouse dungeon of pain. The only thing fostered in their interactions is the idea that rich men can treat women any way they want, and that the word, "no" does not apply to them. But hey, if your chief fetish is that you happen to get really turned on by classism, you're in luck!
Steele: "I want more from this relationship than to just be your slave."
Grey: (Takes her on an expensive glider flight a la The Thomas Crown Affair) "Is this more?"
NO! It's not, and the fact that the film wants us to believe in those scenes that it is more, that Anna can be won over with flashy gifts and empty words not only makes her a hopelessly weak character, but Grey seem all the more predatory.
It seems very fitting that the poster for Fifty Shades displays the eponymous Mr. Grey wielding a necktie shaped to resemble a long knife. Throughout the film, he less comes across as someone with an obsessive sexual proclivity and more as a full-fledged Patrick Bateman.
The movie's first act could have easily earned the label Fifty Shades of Red Flag as he blurts cold, sociopathic remarks to her. It's hard to make the argument that Fifty Shades of Grey is a harmless, sexy diversion when its lead seems ever at the ready to murder the girl he is keeping in his home.
There is, of course, the straw-grasping defense that the problems critics are having with Fifty Shades of Grey stem from lack of perspective on BDSM culture, and that "this is just something some people are into." Turns out, this too is absurd. This movie is not a fair depiction of the fetish lifestyle.
This writer recently spoke with a female member of the Austin fetish community - a woman who has actually been a submissive - and it was made very clear that Grey gives dommes a terrible name. In her own words, "the one doing the submitting is to give themselves willingly to another whom they trust, respect, and expect guidance from." Steele never signs the contract, and furthermore routinely states that she is not into this lifestyle, therefore nothing is given willingly and all defenses that "some women just like this treatment" and/or "this is just a fetish to which most don't prescribe" go right out the window.
If there is one person who really deserves a whipping here, it's the editor. Fifty Shades is a bloated affair with nothing to sustain the long expanses between sex scenes. These issues are exacerbated by the fact that there is no real chemistry between the two leads, and the film's impotent flailing in the direction of actual drama is painful to behold. We, therefore, sit in what feels like sex's waiting room, listening to muzak and twiddling our thumbs. So in addition to all the offensive, classist misogyny running rampant, Fifty Shades of Grey is dead air on the skin between the naughty bits.
How It Stacks Up
Fifty Shades of Grey vs. Secretary
2002's Secretary gives the audience everything they believe that they want from Fifty Shades of Grey. It's the story of a secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who achieves sexual and personal awakening via a series of domme/sub encounters with her boss, played by James Spader (who incidentally is also named Mr. Grey in the movie). However, Secretary's title is itself indicative of why it succeeds where Fifty Shades fails. It's not about him, it's about her, and her legitimate feelings that she seeks out to explore, as opposed to being forced to perform acts by one form of manipulation or another.
Fifty Shades of Grey vs. The Grey
No, it's not simply a matter of shared color-related titles. Ok, it's mostly the shared color-related titles, but let's indulge for a second. The wolves hunting Liam Neeson in The Grey, those hungry beasts stalking his every movement, are not terribly dissimilar to Christian Grey, who stalks Ana Steele like he's the narrator in a Duran Duran song. Also, how much better would Fifty Shades have been if Steele had been given a legitimate opportunity to stand her ground and take on Grey in his own element, turning the tables and refusing to be a victim? Answer: much, much better!
Advantage: The Grey
Brian has been a film critic and podcaster for the last six years. He writes for a number of outlets including Movies.com and Moviepilot. He co-founded the geek site OneOfUs.Net and cohosts the Junkfood Cinema podcast for Film School Rejects. Brian is also a member of the Austin Film Critics Association.