Berlinale 2015 Review: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, Not That Terrible

Editor, Canada; Montréal, Canada (@bonnequin)
Berlinale 2015 Review: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, Not That Terrible

Not wanting to be a snob, I attempted to read Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestseller inspired by the Twilight books (which I also haven't read). It's quite badly written, but hey, it was popular, so maybe I was missing something.

I wonder if a lot of the negative attitude towards the book (mostly by those who haven't read it) was because of the demographic of its main readership: middle-aged women. While comic books and their subsequent films are defended as great art, even though they are (mainly) geared towards children, we are very derogatory, even nasty, towards romance novels and those who read them. Why are books/films about superheroes or magical creatures and objects, completely fantastical in nature and often filled with violence (sometimes sexual, frequently with women victims), given a pass, whereas these kinds of books about love and sex are not? Because they are written for women? Or a certain 'type' of woman, who might be seen as less educated, prone to fantasy, repressed, not able to accept the 'realities' of love and sex. Because, of course, a story about a guy who is part spider is so much more realistic (and for the record, there are comics and superhero films that I like a lot).

If you want to read those books, that's fine, it doesn't make you stupid, or a 'slut', or repressed. With this in mind, I went into the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, arguably the most anticipated adaptation of the year, already racking up ticket presales in record numbers. I liked director Sam Taylor-Johnson's Nowhere Boy, and I'll admit to curiosity about her latest. And much to my surprise, there was a lot about it that I enjoyed.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a university senior about to graduate with a degree in English Literature, fills in for her ailing roommate to interview Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a young, successful businessman. They have an immediate attraction, and shortly after they begin dating, Christian reveals his sexual desires, namely BDSM, for which he has an elaborate 'playroom'. Ana must decide whether she is willing to indulge in this less-than-orthodox relationship, while fighting her desire just to go out to the movies with a man she loves.

Make no mistake, this is a Harlequin-romance style plot, though perhaps only in its basic story points: a woman with a heart of gold meets a cold man, he tries to keep their relationship at arm's length, though all the while he is drawn to her more and more. But surprisingly, the normal beats aren't all there. Christian may keep trying to throw money at the problem through helicopter rides, gifts of cars and first-edition books, and a fancy apartment, but the 'money can't buy love' saying is quite clear. Ana might have a bit too comfortable of a life for an English lit major with a part-time job at a hardware store, but this is part of the fantasy. This film is definitely displaying a stereotype of romantic/sexual entanglement that has little to do with reality (from either the male or female perspective), and it wears its romantic/light sexual 'deviance' clearly on its sleeve, but that is part of its charm.

The charm comes through most clearly when the film is self-reflexive; this comes through in the sledgehammer-to-the-head double entendres about handymen needing two-inch tape and two-dimensional supporting characters (though I will say having seasoned actors Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Ehle as the main characters' mothers adds a interesting touch of class). Sadly, far too often, I was laughing at the film rather than with it: this was when the film indulged in the terrible stereotypical, romance-novel style dialogue that served as an unfortunate reminder of the source material. I don't know if screenwriter Kelly Marcel pulled this dialogue straight from the books, but if so, I would think she could have rephrased it to sound better without losing the point.

Taylor-Johnson does a great job of directing what must have been difficult material to work with, in the sense of audience expectation. This film called for longing looks, titillating sex scenes, lots of beautiful people, all the while having to adhere to how the material demanded to be presented, and keeping it from getting an NC-17 rating. So yes, the sex scenes are softly lit, Ana writhes and moans in perfect cue on the bed, and the larger issues of money, abuse and trauma are never really explored (though that may come in the subsequent films). But Taylor-Johnson keeps to her vision, as much as she is allowed, and does matches the style to the material, something that far too many directors fail to do.

In the film, as I expect in the book, the characters are pretty two-dimensional, so I was surprised to find myself quite charmed by Johnson. Considering we're not given much to go on as to Ana's personality, Johnson makes us care for her and like her pretty quickly, she never treats her character as silly or stupid, and is obviously in her way poking a bit of fun at the (for lack of a better word) cheesy-ness of the story.

Johnson's Ana does not go blindly into her relationship with Christian, she makes it clear that he does not hold all the power, and she asserts herself. Dornan is a let-down; I realize that Christian is supposed to be a cool customer, but Dornan made him dull. I would have left him, not because of his issues with intimacy, but because he was without personality. This made the 'romance' hard to believe, which is really the cornerstone of a story such as this; if we can't see why Ana would love Christian, then the whole story seems pointless. But of course it is, as I've said, this is Harlequin romance stuff, so an in-depth analysis of character motivation is a bit of a waste of time.

There has been some questioning of the film's (and I assume the book's) alleged 'glamourization' of violence, as it is suggested that Christian is a survivor of childhood abuse, and his sexual proclivities are a result of trauma. The few BDSM scenes are far too vanilla to be considered 'violent', and there are a lot of adults who engage in consensual BDSM, so I'm not sure I can voice an opinion on this argument. I will say, as someone who programs horror films, that I see a lot of horrible stereotypes and engagement with lack of sensitivity to survivors of abuse in violence, that Fifty Shades of Grey looks like a Disney film by comparison. However, as stated, there are apparently two more films to come, so I'll hold off judgement until then.

I wouldn't argue that Fifty Shades of Grey is a great film, or necessarily a good film, but it's not as terrible as a lot of people would like to pretend it is. Yes, the dialogue is awful most of the time, and yes, it indulges in a lot of tired cliches as to what men and women want out of love and sex. But for anyone out there who enjoys watching films such as Troll 2 or The Room, this is no different, in that it could be in the 'so bad it's good' section of the proverbial video store. And at least it's much better directed. And oddly, I would argue that it is a feminist film, at least considering the ending. You can laugh at it, or you can take it for what it is, and enjoy the ride.

Fifty Shades of Grey

  • Sam Taylor-Johnson
  • Kelly Marcel (screenplay)
  • E.L. James (novel)
  • Dakota Johnson
  • Jamie Dornan
  • Jennifer Ehle
  • Eloise Mumford
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Berlinale 15Dakota JohnsonFifty Shades of GreyJamie DornanSam Taylor-JohnsonKelly MarcelE.L. JamesJennifer EhleEloise MumfordDramaRomance

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