Monday, 23 February 2015
50 Shades of Grey (3 Stars)
I'm fifty shades of fucked up, Anastasia.
I can't remember when a film has sparked so much controversy. Everyone was talking about it from when the filming first started. That's not because the book on which it's based was so successful, selling more than 60 million copies worldwide. It's not the first time a successful book has been filmed. The controversy stems from the subject matter. It's a book about sex, moreover it's a book about kinky sex, leading to expectations that it would be a pornographic film. That's the sort of film respectable people don't watch in public. They watch it secretly at home on the Internet and never talk about what they've seen.
I'll get it out of the way first that the end result, the film I saw in the cinema today, isn't pornography. It has erotic scenes in it which probably go further than what most cinema-goers would sit and watch with their friends, but it's far from pornographic. It will probably disappoint many people who are used to harder stuff in their private hours at home.
It's difficult for me to steer completely away from spoilers in this review. I apologise for this in advance. Luckily the plot is so empty that I don't have to describe much. Anastasia Steele is a college student majoring in English Literature. She visits Christian Grey, the billionaire head of a telecommunications company in Seattle, to interview him for her student newspaper. After the meeting a disjointed relationship begins between the two. They're both fascinated with one another, but they have different expectations from the relationship. She falls in love with him and wants a romance, whereas he wants to control her, both sexually and emotionally.
Let's make it clear that it doesn't matter what I write, or what any film critic will write. This film is a smash hit. The following table, taken from the web site Box Office Mojo on February 22nd, shows that it's the best earning film of 2015 so far, outperforming the second place film by 43%. By the time you read this post it might be further ahead. Click on the table for an update.
This is a difficult review for me to write. Am I going to judge the production quality of the film or the content of what is shown? It's difficult for me to keep the two apart. I'll try to get the first category out of the way first, because I have more to say about the second. Many critics have said that the dialogue is poorly written and the acting is poor. I disagree. Both the dialogue and its delivery are appropriate to the characters being portrayed. Christian Grey is a billionaire, so he has a stilted way of carrying himself, very different to the way normal people talk. We see the same thing when Anthony Hopkins plays the billionaire Charles Morse in "The Edge". If this had been Hopkins' only film we might have questioned his acting ability, but as it is his performance is exactly what is needed for the role. On the other hand, Anastasia is a star-struck young girl, swept off her feet by a man who is out of her league in every possible way, and Dakota Johnson adequately portrays this. As for the plot, not much happens, but I'm assuming that in this respect the film follows the book.
Now to the film's content. It's a fairy tale that borrows a lot from the story of Cinderella. A poor young girl meets a handsome young prince. She leaves the palace, but he searches for her. I've read reviews where people claim that Christian Grey was acting like a stalker when he walked into Anastasia's place of work. This is ridiculous. Was the prince a stalker when he searched the kingdom to find the girl who had lost her slipper? Not at all. If he had had the Internet he could have found her a lot faster. What makes a man a stalker isn't pursuing a woman, it's continuing to pursue her when she says she isn't interested. Anastasia was still sending Christian positive signals in this part of the film.
In fact, for the first half of the film Christian was a sympathetic character to me. He protected Anastasia from a drunken assault by her friend Jose. He didn't take advantage of her when she was drunk. He emphasised that she was free to leave at any time. If only he had stayed like this for the rest of the film.
I don't see the non-disclosure agreement that he asks Anastasia to sign at the beginning of the relationship as a sign of control. On the contrary, it's good sense for a rich man in our kiss-and-tell age. So many women have a relationship or a one-night stand with a celebrity, then sell their story to the newspapers afterwards. It's what people like to hear, "how the other half lives". There has to be some level of privacy in a relationship, and there's a strong temptation for a person to break that privacy if the press offers thousands of dollars.
The other contract, the BDSM contract that's never actually signed, is a different matter. Judging by the brief quotes it sounds like a version of the same contract that I signed with a Mistress 20 years ago. The book's author, E. L. James, can't be accused of not doing her homework on the BDSM community. The problem in the film isn't the contract itself, it's Christian's attitude to it. Due to Anastasia's hesitation and the differences in her expectations she doesn't sign it, but Christian doesn't care. In the absence of a mutual agreement he single-handedly enforces the terms that he considers favourable to himself. "Fuck the contract!", he says when she appeals to its terms. This contract is intended as a document to protect a submissive from things he/she might not want from a dominant, so acting against it crosses the line from domination to abuse.
This is in character with other developments that we see in Christian in the second half of the film. He started as a likeable character, but once we see his darker side I felt like punching him in the face. He breaks into Anastasia's private apartment to wait for her and give her a present. This is totally unacceptable behaviour. There is no excuse for it. This is nothing to do with BDSM. It's the arrogance of a rich man who thinks he can do whatever he wants with the poor people below him, and he expects them to be thankful for it. In the same way he steals her car and sells it, giving her a brand new car in return. That should have been the final straw for Anastasia, but the star-struck little Cinderella welcomes him taking away her rags to give her riches. She doesn't realise her mistake until the end of the film when she asks for her rags back, and she's told it's too late.
Early on in the film Christian tells Anastasia that the terms of their relationship are negotiable. That's admirable. But when she comes with her wishes, for instance that she wants to be allowed to touch Christian without being asked to, his answer is a clear No. For Christian negotiation means that she tells him what she wants and he refuses. He is unmoveable. Any offers to compromise are just lies intended to draw Anastasia in.
Christian Grey is obviously an emotional cripple. He's the son of a crack addict and was adopted into a rich family when he was four. I'm not saying this to excuse him. Other men with a background like this would be hungry for romantic attachment in later life to make up for their early lack of love, but Christian rejects romance and only wants control. "I don't make love, I fuck hard". He's an ugly person. Anastasia is much too good for him. Christian mentions that he spent six years as the submissive of an older woman, from the ages of 15 to 21, but he seems to have learnt nothing from this time.
As much as I dislike Christian Grey, I find the film's portrayal of him as a person realistic. It's what I would expect a rich dominant man to be like. For most of my life I have skirted the edges of the BDSM community, but despite being in relationships with a few women I have refused to let myself be drawn in. I've never met any billionaires, or even millionaires, but I've known a lot of dominant men, and what I've seen has shocked me. The line between domination and abuse is very thin, and men are ill-equipped to stay on the right side. A man might begin a relationship promising to respect all of his submissive's boundaries, but when he becomes jealous or sexually aroused he can snap and reveal his true nature. I have had women crying in my arms who finally saw what their dominant was capable of. For instance, a friend of mine who married her dominant was ordered by him to kneel in the living room while he was having sex with another submissive girl that he had met online. She obeyed him, despite the unpleasantness of hearing the two together, but when she heard her husband snoring, having forgotten all about her, she finally stood up and left him. This might sound like an extreme example, but it's typical of what dominant men do if they get the chance.
Women, on the other hand, are better equipped to dominate, both genetically and emotionally. They can respect boundaries. They know when to stop, even without hearing a safe word. Apart from this, women are able to separate sex and domination. For a man, domination is foreplay to sex. A man cannot see the point in dominating a woman if sexual intercourse doesn't follow. Women are better able to compartmentalise. A dominant woman might have sex with her submissive, if it's her partner, or she might have a completely non-sexual relationship based on domination alone.
Many people disagree with my opinions on domination, as I know from endless discussions in the past. A big problem with the BDSM scene is that most people have only learnt about it from books. They read about what's right and what's wrong, safe words, consensuality, etc. and then they meet other people who've read the same books, and they're all happy together. When they encounter someone who says something different they say, "You're wrong", or "You don't know enough". It's a very intolerant community. Luckily it's possible to meet people, sometimes in unexpected places, who have the courage to think for themselves.