Feb 6, 2018

In Defense of Sam-Taylor Johnson's "Fifty Shades of Grey"

Scene from Fifty Shades of Grey
As it has been for the past three Valentines Day weekend, the latest in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise will hit theaters. This one, Fifty Shades Freed, is promised to be the final entry in this erotic drama that has come under fire for its depiction of S&M. There's no denying that this trilogy isn't art - how can any film be with a tag line like "Don't miss the climax"? However, it does seem a little controversial to suggest that in spite of the oeuvre not being more than tame R-rated sex scenes set to Oscar-nominated music from The Weeknd, the first film from director Sam-Taylor Johnson actually has plenty more going for it than kinks and fetishes. For a series that's been a notorious thief of "Twilight" mythology, it actually tells a story that isn't nearly as bad as people make it out to be. Again, is it art? A capital N-O will suffice. However, it succeeds pulpy entertainment.
There's a lot to hate about the series created by E.L. James, including that it's basically erotic fan fiction of another author's series. There's no denying that the lewd passages essentially are worthy of parody at this point, even earning a nice Gilbert Gottfried makeover. One can go even further and complain that the depiction of S&M is a tad unhealthy. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey wasn't even the best S&M movie of 2015 - that would be the underrated masterpiece The Duke of Burgundy, which found a deeper emotional core that elevates it to a greatness on par with Belle du Jour. That film understood what drove people to certain intimate acts in ways that are too taboo for mainstream American audiences who were raised on prudish understandings of sex. Any attempt to sympathize the act as anything but impulsive love has proven to not be commercially successful. It's a weird dichotomy, but a good starting point for Fifty Shades of Grey, the first movie.
It's clearly an R-rated franchise in a time where sexless superhero movies dominate. It can't help but be a sore thumb in that regards. The notorious behind the scene stories of actors Dakota "Anastasia Steele" Johnson and Jamie "Christian Grey" Dornan would even suggest that they didn't think this would work out. Yet it's all material that makes the film feel more miraculous, even as the film's sultry cover of "Crazy in Love" played over the trailers and hid in between passionate, pelvic thrusts. The film was sold as exactly what it was supposed to be: dime store eroticism, full of passages meant to provoke but probably not give deeper (or grammatical) thought. This is a story of an American businessman having sex with his intern. It's not meant to be as compelling as Secretary. It's just a fantasy by which people off screen can feel unfulfilled desires. It's why young boys turn to superheroes, and why some older women turn to Anastasia and Christian.
In the equivalent of "I read Playboy Magazine for the articles" argument, Fifty Shades of Grey isn't a film that you read the subtext for. Everything is present in how the characters stare at each other. John gives Anastasia a certain timidity at first that plays out as any farcical gag from a romantic comedy. Her passion blossoms over time, but it comes through in winks and nods. In a PG-13 realm, this would probably a Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey joint. But because the film wishes to be more "faithful" to the story, it goes for the passion of romance, which has generally been perceived by American audiences as dumb. People do crazy things when they're in love. Because Mr. Grey owns a plane, sometimes it's recklessly stupid things suspended in midair to Ellie Goulding tunes.
The plot beyond its grandeur is not revolutionary. The passion has a certain elegance that R-rated franchise get squeamish around. It is, after all, S&M. It's why this franchise (sadly) sold hundreds of millions of books. It has to be at times campy because of the playful nature of lovebirds. However, it does have one of the more interesting plot developments of any recent romantic drama. Late in the film, Anastasia and Mr. Grey negotiate through paperwork how their relationship will go. It's a mundane act, and one that seems unexpected. Still, it shows a balance of power that is quite charming and gives the film a bigger personality than "that kinky movie." In spite of the conflict between Johnson and Dornan off screen, little of it is seen here, where they understand each other in an economic business sense.
The thing that's also clear here that is missing in the sequel Fifty Shades Darker is that the film is rich with character moments. It's how Anastasia smiles in the rain, or stares in awe at city lights from a plane. It's the joy of new love. It also somehow features a soundtrack that is better than it has any right to be. As insipid as "Love Me Like You Do" is, it works in capturing the vapid sense of connection that these characters have. The aforementioned Oscar-nominated song by The Weeknd ("Earned It") is also catchier than it has any right to be. There's no denying that this film is immediately pinned as a film of the moment aesthetically like erotic thrillers of the 90's, but it embraces its vapidness in just the right ways.
Again, this isn't a masterpiece of a movie. It's hard to call it underrated without people sneering. Yet this seems true for the sole fact that it succeeds at being campy, stupid, and passionate all in the same second. It's not "So bad it's good" so much as a film about a relationship that's odd, but wish fulfilling in ways that driving cars on ice while kicking nuclear bombs towards an enemy sub gets too much credit for. In a time where people wish to be buttoned-up and conservative, Fifty Shades of Grey is a baffling ode to romance, no matter how faulty, that is somehow unfulfilled by other people.
It's lightning in a bottle. Fifty Shades Darker layers on the melodrama that you'd expect the first film to have in ways that are underwhelming. It becomes the erotic drama of backstabbing and hissy fits that people assume this franchise is nothing but. True, it still has that winking humor, but the simple passion is now more complicated, forcing you to care about concepts more broad than "He loves her." It doesn't help in general that the soundtrack is lacking the runaway hit, and the passion is a bit redundant. It's a frustrating film to say the least, and adds concern for Fifty Shades Freed... though it already has a stellar tagline. It could all be that the film lost its feminine touch when Sam-Taylor Johnson was booted from the sequel, but it could also just be that these films were never going to be better than their lacking source material.
If you're looking for great S&M movies, there's plenty better than you can do. However, Fifty Shades of Grey is a distinctly bold movie for American mainstream audiences. It's a subject most are too squeamish to want to talk about, so of course it seems silly. The only time sex can be discussed is in comedic form. The passion has to fit somewhere in there. So while I have no hope for Fifty Shades Freed being The Return of the King of this series, it may unfortunately cast a shadow over what the first film does right. It's the type of film that may never be deemed a classic, nor will it be more than the film that spawned "Love Me Like You Do." Yet it's far more tolerable than it has any right to be, and in that way the choice to roll your eyes at Fifty Shades Freed isn't entirely earned. It's not great, but it has a few things going for it.

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