Often when I read about films I bookmark the great writings I find. I like to re-read my favourite film criticism just to see how it is done by real critics. Sometimes here on this blog I single out pieces I consider beautiful, but what I am not in the habit of doing is pointing my finger at the bad ones.
Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015)
What this piece aims to do is subverting a writing which can barely call itself a review. Let’s call it a short-review to hide its blatant rant side. It’s a write-up on Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey which I am going to take apart paragraph by paragraph because I want to offer another opinion, mostly an opposite one, on each and everyone of them. By the way, I wrote the words I am about to destroy1.
First things first: I know nothing about the book, I know nothing about the director, and I didn’t even notice this film when it came out. There, my ignorance on display.
The problem with a start like this is that one feels they have to make sure the reader will not be offended or at least should enter prepared. Why retreat from the challenge with a poor display of humility? More importantly, why should the reader care about my knowledge of the book? Does my ignorance have any relevance to the words that follow? As we can see from the next paragraph I took a completely different road, so there doesn’t seem to be any relation at all with the rest of the comment.
My problem with this kind of picture is that intimacy is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, thing to get right in cinema. It’s not a matter of showing off genitals, it’s a matter of chemistry. You must find the right actors, you have to understand how the choice of words and the delivering of those words come into play, you have to balance artificiality with natural instincts. Eyes closed, you can feel it coming from the screen when it’s done right. A sex scene to me is only interesting when it conveys intimacy, otherwise is soft porn for the masses. Even a violation of that intimacy can be a worthy subject, but it takes an even apter hand to impress me with that.
As much as the meaning of the word intimacy is relevant to a film like Fifty Shades of Grey, this paragraph touches little of what Taylor-Johnson actually captures on the screen and it fails to read the images for what they offer. Intimacy is a beautiful thing, but it’s exactly what is missing in the lives of Anastasia and Christian, and Taylor-Johnson works on this with her characters from various angles.
Anastasia is pure, virginal frailty, searching for the intimacy she has yet to experience. At every step of her relationship with Christian she moves further into what intimacy means for her, deluded by the illusion of a romance that is never going to happen. On the other hand, Christian twists his version of intimacy aroused by the power of control. He imposes closeness while keeping it at a distance, just as Anastasia wants to skip the distance and grab the closeness once and for all.
Fifty Shades of Grey fails on intimacy from the very beginning. The stiffness of the dialogues makes it impossible to connect with the events, and the actors play the mutual attraction with such coldness that it’s equally impossible to accept the sex scenes as the power struggle they aim to be. I can fake my interest in a rich guy with sadomasochistic tendencies, but I cannot fake my interest in a bonding that never feels possible.
There are two issues here, the first being really obvious. There is no “stiffness” and the supposed “coldness” was blindness to the subtleties in the acting. Jamie Dornan is the arrogant prick who lives in a world so far and away from our everyday one that it takes a forceful act to tear it down. His smug conveys a self-assurance built on money and little else. The shifts in emotions which Dornan translates with cracks on his face near the end are more effective than the thousand words he could have used to explain his behaviour.
Dakota Johnson goes even further. She starts by displaying on her face and with her body a seemingly total lack of confidence, but what lies beneath comes out through her voice, her lips, and her eyes. And it’s there on the screen from the very first meeting with Christian, where Anastasia battles against the awkward feeling of being on another planet and the will to preserve the control of her action. She doesn’t know where she is and yet she does know where she is. The more she falls for Christian the more she lets down her guard, and Johnson lets her body run along with it, being it drunk or trapped in a dance.
The second problem I was referring to is the power struggle in the sex scenes. There is no power struggle here. We can see from the beginning where the power is, so it’s not about power at all until the final moments. Sex in Fifty Shades of Grey is about controlling passion and passionate control. It’s about pushing the limits knowingly until the veil is stripped and the limits are exposed for what they are. The statement about class is to be found in everything but sex.
Moreover, it doesn’t help framing everything in an expensive music video style, unless you want to highlight the artificiality of it. Artificiality comes with a cost, though, and it’s not enough to toy with smooth lights to build it. Even artificiality craves for believability, and from the helicopter drive to the spotless rooms lushly decorated, everything looks simply lifted from a trendy furniture catalogue.
I am glad I moved beyond this simplistic view of artificiality. Taylor-Johnson is so much more than “smooth lights”, like in the incredible meeting scene, where the playfulness of love intersects with anxiety and lust, fear and curiosity, all cast under a dark orange light which shows and conceals at the same time. This scene alone is enough to trash any accusation of “music video style”.
Moreover, believability is not about how I can relate to the furniture. Taylor-Johnson builds spaces which reflect the emptiness of Christian. He uses objects as he uses women, and he discards them oblivious to their meaning and the reason of their presence. Cleanliness is coldness and that is what Christian is, framed in rooms so impersonal and detached from the reality of his mind. He is a stranger in warmer places as in, for instance, his parents’ house, just like Anastasia never really fits in large spaces with no sense of humanity in them.
Ōshima Nagisa and Bernardo Bertolucci paved the way for portrayals of sex and intimacy beyond trite erotic fantasies. They grabbed the fantasies and pull them on the screen without masks of fake prudery. Nobody has followed, and Fifty Shades of Grey surely hasn’t learned their lesson.
Ōshima Nagisa and Bernardo Bertolucci did exploit prudery, but to reduce Taylor-Johnson’s work to a “trite erotic fantasy” is misreading it to say the least. It’s missing the meaning of fantasy entirely. Fifty Shades of Grey takes the fantasy of erotic pleasure and purges it of any satisfaction up to the point where it becomes unbearable. Not because of what Taylor-Johnson chooses to show and not to show when portraying sex, but because what matters is the grey, not the shades.