ICYMI – “50 Shades of Grey” A Beginners Guide to BDSM

Popular literature has long been a source of material for Hollywood. The Harry Potter series; The Millennium Series, also known as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and The Lord of the Rings series have all had their film adaptations. So it was no surprise to see “50 Shades of Grey” get its own treatment on the silver screen. Or should I say grey screen?

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and written by Kelly Marcel, it made its debut on Valentine’s Day and, according to boxofficemojo.com, as of February 19th had grossed $315,902,510 worldwide.

Before I get into the review, I should offer a disclaimer: this reviewer has not read the book this film is based on. The only exposure I’ve had to the words is a few YouTube videos of people reading selections from the first book in author E.L. James’ trilogy. If you haven’t watched “Gay Men Read 50 Shades of Grey,” by the YouTuber Neil McNeil, you are missing a comedic treat.  Fans of the film I’m about to rip into will be excited to know that its sequel is already in the works.

First of all, the story lacks originality. A young college English major Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson, meets and falls in love with a rich young businessman Christian Grey, played by Jamie Dornan. She’s intrigued by his quiet, dark and assertive manner. They get together. He sweeps her off her feet yet keeps her at a distance. His issues drive them apart yet they still love each other. The end.

But even if you haven’t read the books, there has been enough media coverage and hype about the film. You may already know the element of the story that’s been driving the public’s intrigue; the title character Christian’s propensity for bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism (BDSM). Or in layman’s terms, he likes to tie up his sexual partners and subject them to various forms of pain for his pleasure and for theirs.

If it wasn’t for this, the story would be dead in the dungeon or the ice cave. E.L. James started writing her trilogy online as Twilight fan fiction under the username “Snowqueens Icedragon”. Yet for some reason, this swil made it into the entertainment industry’s water supply. Do you think the Icedragon had a hard time hitting the keys with its giant claws? From what I heard on the quality of the book’s writing, I’d say yes.

This film is sleek in that Ikea crossed with William Sonoma and Hugo Boss with a dash of Gap and a sprinkling of Forever 21 sort of way. Everything is clean. Every car is shiny. All the suits are perfectly pressed and every dress’ ruffle is ruffled just right. Anastasia’s hair is perfectly messy after she wakes up from a messy night out. She works in the cleanest hardware store ever built. Even her dated flip phone, which she uses often, does not have a single scratch on it.

And with too-and-fro dialogue like this, what lady can resist the drama:

Anastasia: “You’re not what I want.”

Christian: “No. You’re everything that I want.”

Anastasia: “I’ve fallen in love with you.”

Christian: “No Anna, you can’t love me.”

Visually, tones of grey and blue are overwhelming. Christian’s suits are grey. His secretaries wear grey, his desk and chairs in his office are grey. His cars are grey. It feels like the film was shot with a grey filter over the lens and to top it off, it takes place in the greyist city in the nation, Seattle. But oddly, it only rains twice in the movie.

Christian is, according to the film’s pretenses, everything a woman could want. He’s rich. He exercises and eats healthy. He drinks white wine, dances, knows how to braid women’s hair and even plays sad slow songs on a grand piano with his shirt off after sex. He’s great at swooning ladies, as long as they don’t mind being tied to a bed, shackled and suspended from a ceiling, teased with a peacock feather and whipped, spanked, or smacked with a belt.

This may tickle the viewer’s curiosity, but for a movie built around BDSM, it sure doesn’t deliver on what the audience came to see. Of the six or so scenes that contain the sexual action, the very first, in which Anastasia loses her virginity, gets the most screen time. And it’s all downhill from there.

This is the problem I have with the film even more than the boring story and high B-grade acting: The movie lends itself to being about the hot stuff–and even though that’s the case, there’s not entirely enough of it. The story is bad, the acting is bad, but even more sex would have probably given this movie an NC-17 rating. Which is exactly what it needed.

If you’re going to make a movie about BDSM, give the audience some real BDSM. Grey has more of an undertone of kinky sex then actual kinky sex. By far, the scene that gives the most insight into the BDSM lifestyle happens when Anastasia and Christian are negotiating the contract she is supposed to sign, stating the parameters under which she will be his submissive. To slightly spare you from the off-color details, one portion of the negotiation pertains to how much of certain things can be put into certain places. This is not a sex scene but there is enough tension and description that it certainly feels like one. For some reason this negotiation takes place in a room dimly lit by a red light. It made for a hot exchange but not practical for reading a contract.

In a recent Vanity Fair article by Vanessa Grigoriadis, she writes that E.L. James had some element of control of the casting of this film and I can understand how James would want to stay true to the book’s fans by keeping Anastasia and Christian to the same age they are in the books. But Hollywood adapts books all the time and changes characters to play to a wider audience. But with a worldwide gross of over $300 million, who needs a wider audience, right? The two lead roles could have been played better with more talented and slightly older actors. I’d choose Viggo Mortensen and Michelle Williams. In the commentary for the 2011 film “Take This Waltz,” Williams said she never got the opportunity to play a character in a coming of age tale until that film. 50 Shades would have been another excellent opportunity for that.

In Grigoriadis’ article, she also writes that Brett Easton Ellis was pursuing the job of screenwriter for 50 Shades. If you’ve ever seen the controversial movies “American Psycho,” “The Rules of Attraction” or “Less Than Zero,” he is the man who wrote the books those movies were based on.

“Ellis thought Fifty Shades should be an unapologetic, NC-17 ‘sex movie,’ a ‘chance to do something scandalous in mainstream American culture,’” writes Grigoriadis.

I stand with Ellis on that idea.

In order to wash off and hopefully purge myself of the awful experience that was watching “50 Shades of Grey,” I’m off to give 2002’s “The Secretary” another watch or two. It stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee Halloway, a secretary to a man who I’m calling the original Mr. Grey played by James Spader. Seriously though, the guy’s name is Mr. Grey. The plot is similar to 50 Shades in that a woman falls in love with a man who takes his pleasure in taboo ways. There’s a scene with a horse saddle and carrot. View at your own risk. It has a better story and superbly better acting.

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