Fifty Shades of Grey is a hilarious movie. I was going to write profoundly hilarious but nothing about Shades is profound. It’s an erotic sado-masochist fantasy in which the audience, according to reports and my own quick look around the cinema, is mainly young people including a lot of couples, thus a lot of young women. There are also some middle-aged people, lots of them women who may be there with girlfriends — social strength in numbers. Why young men want to see Shades is obvious: raging hormones and a hope, stimulated by internet porn, that their women may get interested in a practical way. Women, the young and middle-aged alike, may see it because, according to Freud and opinion poll experts, fantasies of bondage are age-old among the second sex. In the end, however, Shades is not as gripping as its reputation.
The actor who plays the hero, or anti-hero, Christian Grey, looks like a buff mix of Jim Carrey and Louis Jourdan, the French 50-70s heart throb. He was hard to take seriously as he attempted to personify a 27-year-old billionaire with a supremely-confident, cold, penetrating, dominating look. At any moment it wouldn’t have surprised me had he morphed into Rubber Man with his mad grin or the romantic hero breaking out into Gigi with a tender smile. The actress who plays Anastasia Steele (the last name is a tip-off) is a cross between the face and physiognomy of Jane Birkin (mother of Charlotte whose father is French bad-boy Serge Gainsbourg) and the eyes of French actress Sophie Marceau in her ingénue days. Anna is, believe it or not, an undergraduate senior. She alternates instantly between a still-virgin valley girl (she says, “theenk you” when in this mode) and a wise-beyond-her-years, game-for-almost-anything steely woman of the world, like Marceau’s role as the daughter of D’Artagnan in Revenge of the Musketeers.
Christian is the dominator. However he’s not a fundamentally bored European sophisticate who plays sado-masochism as an aesthetic game. He’s in earnest (i.e. American), a psychologically-traumatized straight-shooter who tells Anna up front that he “never sleeps overnight with anyone,” never makes love, “only fucks.” (I was about to burst out laughing when I sensed no one else was.) The enigmatic title is then explained when he blurts out, I’m like this “because I’m fifty shades of fucked up.” Surprise to him, the dramatic arc shows him to be implacable but not far-enough gone not to be touched by the love of a sincere woman.
As for the eroticism: it comes in two boxes. One is the bondage as such, S&M, which appears only after an hour or so. There are altogether three or four modestly explicit scenes of nothing more than whuppin’ while a lot of unused tools hang on the walls. The other box is the eroticism of the bondage. Here Anna, hands tied up and thrown over her head, sometimes double-knotted to a bed post, writhes, bites her lip and breathes hard to a rising musical background of Passion of Joan of Arc, as things happen to her (previously she gave up her virginity in a rather believable romantic moment several days before the other stuff gets going). One of these things involves tickling her tied up with a peacock feather (sic). Again I gulped down an urge. The nudity tells a lot about the film’s daring. Over an hour the audience is given several minutes of Anna’s breasts and nice side views of her nakedness but no genitalia. Women are objectified but modestly; the men are shot from behind and nobody’s groin appears in public. This is Playboy Magazine 1950s eroticism, exciting enough as it was at the time for high-school boys growing up in the Midwest. Shades is not even close to Bertolucci’s commercial sexualized break-out film Last Tango in Paris (1972) in which really a lot of Maria Schneider was on objectified display but Marlon Brando’s equipment remained sheathed from prying eyes.
In the overall scheme of things what indeed is going on in Shades? Deep down it’s a Cinderella story, Cinderella in bondage. Rather than kissed by a froggy Prince she’s made to sign a contract for submission with rules and regulations, including the compulsory ‘this will stop anytime you say.’ An added trope of Pygmalianism appears: Christian is teaching Anna to explore her sexuality, somewhat as Rex Harrison taught Julie Andrews to speak proper English in My Fair Lady. In other words, it’s Pretty Woman-plus; or, if Bunuel’s Belle de jour is a comparison, then half a step. (No one forgets that spot of blood close to the bourgeoise lady of the day, Catherine Deneuve.) We intuit the underlying theme in that the contract for S&M includes one evening a week to spend as “normal” people, eating dinner out, going to the movies and so forth. The immediate normal thing to do then occurs. They close dance like Bogie and Betty, or Richard and Julia, on the marble floor of his hi-up penthouse to a Frank Sinatra record (sic). As against Shades‘ version, anyone looking for real S&M depiction should consult the classic French scandal novel, The Story of O, or the grainy, sincere black and white porno films before commercial depravity set in.
It’s not only Cinderella and Pygmalian. There’s also Grey’s James Bond-ness. He’s a master of gadgets. He flies Anna up in a helicopter and takes her on a hang-glider, suggesting that she herself give the order for release from the drag-plane, which Puts Her In Charge of her thrills in this high-wire act. The 007-ness of it all overflows when Grey orders a drink, not a Bond martini but a gin-and-tonic, with a certain hard-to-find- gin “if you have it,” and if not then Bombay Sapphire. We’re in America for sure. In fact it’s Seattle. Grey’s bespoke suits don’t quite work and he tends to look like a Men’s Warehouse TV commercial. In fact the viewer’s suspicions that Shades is middlebrow American were raised from the first moment when — my heart sank — the song played over the titles was “You put a spell on me.”
The moment of truth in the film is the last frame. Anna has become irremediably furious at Christian for having flogged her six times on the rear end with a whip (that transforms metaphorically into a belt. The root of Grey’s sadism, we see, is that he was beaten with a belt by his alcoholic, drug-addicted mother until the age of six when she died). Anna at this point has had enough. Why does he want to see her like this, naked and beaten, to treat her like this? Is he really incapable of human feeling? Isn’t he ready for the genuine love of a good woman? Apparently not, or not quite yet but something is afoot.
Anna stomps off into the elevator, leaving her dominator in the dust. Christian, suddenly desperate, emoting with the truth, runs after her but she relents not, the elevator door closes and she is gone. She’s put him in his place. She’s turned the tables on Christian. Now she’s in charge, he’s the dominated one. Put differently, Cinderella, through her good-willed attempt at bondage, becomes a feminist. Bondage, dialectically, sets you free. Shades shows that we Americans are still incurable optimists. The only problem is that we aren’t told what happens to Christian now that he’s been hit with romantic kryptonite.
(Ironically, as we say, the new movie version of Cinderella is showing simultaneously at the cinema I attended.)