Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
There is a character in Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” that sets the standard, at least in my mind, for a male sexual dominant. He is played enigmatically by Jamie Bell and the reason why we are fascinated by this man is because although his physicality is not at all domineering—he is neither especially tall nor muscular—there is a silent intensity about him, most often localized in the eyes, that makes one want to lean forward and yet still in a ready position to recoil in an instant just in case he did anything surprising—the kind that looks like it really hurts.
“Fifty Shades of Grey,” based on the novel by E.L. James and screenplay by Kelly Marcel, offers a character similar to Bell’s but one that feels slight by comparison. The title character, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), is supposed to be a sexual dominant looking for a willing submissive and yet one gets the feeling that he is only trying on daddy’s leather shoes. I found the attempt to be cute—for the lack of a better word—but two hours of playing pretend stretches the attention to its breaking point.
Let’s get it out of the way: The love or sex scenes are not titillating. Perhaps it might be for prudes or sexually inexperienced, but I do not belong in either camp. Part of the problem is due to the performers’ severe lack of chemistry. The other is editing. Focus not the act happening on screen but the way the scenes are put together. There is a lack of interesting transitions that tease the mind or the senses. We see skin, an article of clothing being taken off, a close-up of a face, and then more skin (most often the back). Sometimes we get heavy breathing that denotes a character being sexually pleased.
Why not allow the perspective of the camera to take its time gliding across the hills and valleys of the human body—of both the man and the woman? This film, obviously catering to women, does not treat the human body as a beautiful thing to be explored. It gives the impression that it is afraid to get real close just in case too close may translate as unsexy. Clearly, director Sam Taylor-Johnson needs to learn a thing or two from the great Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci (“Last Tango in Paris,” “The Dreamers”). Thus, the scenes often come across as not raw or dirty enough to be believable. Let me be clear: the picture need not show sexual organs because it is supposed to be a movie after all, not pornography, but I do require an erotic dramatic film to be sensual enough to give the impression that the audience is a part of the action.
Going back to a prior point: the actors’ lack chemistry. Dakota Johnson is the saving grace of the picture. I found her to be alluring because she almost completely embodies someone who we may encounter out there in the streets or in department stores. Those girls who are not convinced they are beautiful but they really are. Johnson also plays Anastasia with humor and a level of innocence. So when the character says something amusing, it feels effortless, like certain remarks Anastasia makes are what we come to expect from the kind of girl that she is. There is variation in how the actress plays her character which cannot be said the same about Dornan.
Dornan plays Christian sort of stoic most of the time which is supposed to communicate masculinity, I guess, but I found the approach to be predictable and boring. He does not make the character accessible. Halfway through I began to wonder if the twenty-seven-year-old billionaire was any good at his job. Just because he wears expensive suits, owns and drives helicopters, and knows the best kinds of wine to fit any occasion does not mean he is the best at what he does. He is supposed to be an entrepreneur, but we never see him working. What does his company do exactly?
“Fifty Shades of Grey” is a title dripping with irony because I did not walk away from it knowing Christian more as a person. I grew worrisome that it is designed to be a trilogy. How can such a thing be sustained if the setup is weak in many respects? When the novelty and curiosity wear off, what else is there for us to chew on?