Review by © Jane Freebury
So, after weeks of pre-release sales, it’s here at last, the film of the international best-selling novel translated into more than 50 languages. The story of a virginal undergrad who is introduced to the world of BDSM by her corporate high-flyer boyfriend, it has brought whips and handcuffs into the movie mainstream with a new challenge to the liberal, the feminist, and the young person working out how to be.
Maybe a challenge to the odd parent too. Our PM has read the book—he’s done better than me—and says he prefers Nikki Gemmell’s The Bride Stripped Bare. With you there.
It’s not as though BDSM doesn’t have a measure of arthouse cred. We’ve seen elements of sexual bondage, sadism and masochism there for ages, from titillation to outright provocation. A whippet slim Charlotte Rampling shocked audiences with her S&M affair in The Night Porter, Catherine Deneuve’s character sought rough and tumble outside marriage in Belle de Jour. Meg Ryan’s character solicited mortal danger in pursuit of great sex during In the Cut. In a more recent film, Venus in Furs, Polanski again, the traditionally male-female, dominant-submissive roles are reversed.
Though Fifty Shades is the work of talented director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), the glossy patina is solidly mainstream. Knowingly and artfully well made, it comes perilously close at times to luxury goods advertising as the camera caresses the polished interiors of the real estate owned by telecoms magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Each new day, Christian faces the challenge of deciding which shade of grey tie he will privilege.
Things are grounded by young Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson, an ingénue with a natural presence. Though she could have chewed her lip less, even if there are supposed to be hints of a modern day Victorian heroine, lost in the books of Thomas Hardy. Johnson reminds me of the Anglo-French actor Charlotte Gainsbourg who Lars von Trier put through the mill in Antichrist and Nymphomaniac. Casting may have been aware of this resemblance, as it was surely aware of Dornan’s serial killer character in The Fall on TV.
We would agree that people’s intimate fantasies are their business alone, and they have every right to explore to find someone to share them with, so long as there’s no harm done. However, there’s something essentially creepy hearing Christian, the young man with everything, mind you, say to Ana: “I have rules. If you follow, I’ll reward you. If you don’t, I’ll punish you”.
Erotic? Not in the same league as the arthouse there. The filmmakers have obviously deemed it more lucrative to pitch their work at the broader MA 15+ audience rather than consign it to the R-rated ghetto. Hey folks, that’s show business.
In a capsule: A knowing and artful rendition of the international best seller has pushed BDSM into the mainstream, that is explicit and tasteful while borders on luxury goods advertising.