‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ Is Surprisingly Fun (Except For The Boring Sex Scenes)

At the preview screening, guests were given special ice creams coated in grey-tinted chocolate -- but once you bit down, the ice cream was vanilla. Apropos.

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It isn’t difficult to argue that Fifty Shades of Grey is “better than the book”. EL James’ excruciatingly bad prose sets an extremely low bar. But the silk purse crafted out of that sow’s ear by director Sam Taylor-Johnson, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, screenwriter Kelly Marcel and stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan is unexpectedly delightful.

Fifty Shades the movie is playful – and not just in the sense that its title character maintains a ‘playroom’ stocked with ‘toys’. While it incorporates many of the ‘moments’ that fans are fetishistically anticipating – the micromanaging author made sure of that – the film treats them skeptically. Its best creative decision was jettisoning the book’s moronic interior monologue and observing its characters with wry affection.

Despite the pre-release speculation that stars Johnson and Dornan hate each other, onscreen they’re charming enough together. Dornan is left largely to brood, while Johnson sparkles; but together they produce something disarmingly funny, like a comedy of capitalist manners.

It’s Business Time

Fifty Shades is best compared to 1990’s Pretty Woman. A repressed billionaire tycoon proposes a business agreement with a free-spirited woman to provide escort services for a week. “Holy shit!” she cries, once the deal is sealed. Aided by discreet henchmen, to an eclectic pop soundtrack, he showers her with expensive gifts and spirits her away on surprise excursions. He confesses his childhood psychic wounds. And she rescues him right back.

The similarity even extends to a scene where the tortured hero expresses his feels via melancholy midnight piano playing, only to be seductively interrupted when the heroine trails out of bed.

Like Pretty Woman, Fifty Shades collapses the corporate and the corporeal, the libidinal and consumer economies. That capitalism turns every human experience into a commodity to be traded – and that we already know and live under these conditions – makes this a conservative rather than a subversive story. Its audience appeal is based on capitalist fantasies about using one’s wealth to dominate others, not subcultural fantasies of finding freedom through sexual surrender.

How the tycoon Christian Grey (Dornan) actually produces his wealth remains hazy; the film is only interested insofar as it allows virginal Anastasia Steele (Johnson) to interview him awkwardly for her college newspaper, replacing her sick housemate Kate (Eloise Mumford). In a classic screwball meet-cute, Ana stumbles across the threshold of Christian’s office, and blithely quizzes him on whether he’s gay. It’s the best satire on interviewing since Notting Hill.

Johnson gives Ana an almost somnolently diffident voice and an engagingly startled, gawky physicality, peeping from under a shaggy boho fringe. Fifty Shades began as Twilight fanfic; but unlike that story, in which a creepy stalker inexplicably decides a boring teenager is ‘special’, we instantly grasp why Ana might intrigue Christian. To this prematurely jaded businessman, her innocence is a greenfield worth tapping. Yet her alert self-reliance warns us – and teases Christian – that she won’t meekly take his ‘punishment’.

Taylor-Johnson and McGarvey shoot the luxurious bubble – or prison – in which Christian dwells in a glamorous, impersonal way, fresh from an interiors magazine. His vast office (peopled by grey-uniformed babes) and his split-level Seattle penthouse, done up in marble, leather and satin, amplify the film’s signature colour to the point of absurdity – although I couldn’t help noticing that Christian’s bedsheets are the same colour as those of Michael Fassbender’s sex-addict character in Shame.

However, in a welcome departure from the book’s fawning surrender to commodity fetishism, Ana is wary of Christian’s unsolicited, expensive gestures – especially the way he summarily replaces her quirky Volkswagen Beetle with a new Audi the colour of a popped cherry.

The film’s McGuffin is the ‘binding’ contract Christian wants Ana to sign. Their ‘negotiations’ are mischievous exercises of equal agency rather than a hostile takeover. A ‘business meeting’ sequence, beautifully shot under red-tinged light in Christian’s office, had my preview audience in stitches as various sex acts are “duly noted” and ruled out with phallic grey pencils.

A Little Greyer Than Vanilla

At the screening I attended, guests were given special tie-in ice creams coated in grey-tinted chocolate. Once you bit down, though, the ice cream was vanilla, surrounded by a layer of treacle. It’s apropos.

This isn’t really a BDSM story, like Secretary, The Piano Teacher or Nymphomaniac. It’s not interested in why someone would freely choose sexual submission. Instead, the contents of Christian’s Red Room of Pain seem to function as abstract symbols of Ana’s sexual awakening. They’re sex toys in the same sense that Christian is a ‘billionaire’ and Ana is an ‘English literature major’. Rather than offering specific sensations, they merely communicate that something ‘kinky’ and ‘unusual’ is afoot.

What people seem to love about the Fifty Shades story is the much more conventional fantasy that a woman can redeem and tame a damaged man. Christian’s sexual inclinations are explained purely as residual trauma from his exploitation by unseen cruel older women. Even David Cronenberg’s flawed A Dangerous Method doesn’t resort to such easy psychoanalysis.

And it’s unconvincing. “I don’t make love,” avows Christian, “I fuck. Hard.” Yet it’s striking how comparatively Mr Whippy-soft the sex scenes are. They’re well within Hollywood’s mainstream erotic vocabulary of elevator clinches, silhouetted kisses, heads ecstatically thrown back, a tasteful butt shot or two, and fingers and tongues trailing down naked torsos. All soundtracked to swooning power ballads.

Filmed montage-style, the sex scenes are cunningly edited to suggest far more than they actually depict. And Taylor-Johnson and McGarvey do wring out a few striking moments. The hairs on Ana’s thighs silhouetted golden in the light. Seattle rain from Christian’s apartment windows projected sinuously on the wall behind the couple.

But while the camera feasts on Johnson’s nudity (pleasingly, Ana actually has pubes), it refuses to make a similarly voluptuous spectacle of Dornan’s. Apart from one tantalising fly-unzipping shot, Christian’s lower body is almost always shrouded in denim mystery. Perhaps this is intended to represent the control Christian exerts “in all things”; but it’s also easy to read as a denial of the female gaze.

Viewers will find themselves instead fixated on Dornan’s extremely handsome face and penetrating grey-eyed gaze. His performance is cold, controlled, and kind of dull – except for two scenes. One, perhaps the film’s most touching, has Christian and Ana take a euphoric glider joyflight. Unseen by each another, they surrender to their joy as the glider loops gracefully through the sky.

The second, Christian’s climactic, deal-breaking whipping of Ana, may be held up as ‘problematic’ by those who argue Fifty Shades glamorises abusive relationships. That’s not quite fair, as the filmmakers carefully emphasise the consensual nature of everything depicted, including this. And it’s the first time we see Christian truly indulging his own pleasure, aroused from both icy capitalist cliché and solicitous tenderness, quivering, gasping and perspiring as he wields the belt.

That this is represented as ‘a bridge too far’ annoys me, since it’s the film’s most interesting moment, awakening new power and determination in Ana and making Christian vulnerable in a way no moonlit piano jams and bedside confessions can do. As readers will know, this is only the beginning.

Fifty Shades Of Grey is out now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.