Grey is not the Warmest Color
DIRECTED BY SAM TAYLOR-JOHNSON/2015
Jim Tudor: The year long-plus onslaught of hype and advertising have been telling us that “Mr. Grey will see you now.” And now finally, the time has come when you can see him. But should you?
Ah, who are we kidding? People looking forward to this film know who they are, and those inclined to avoid it at all costs shouldn’t, in this case, be persuaded to change their minds. But when two film critics subject themselves to Fifty Shades of Grey: The Movie! in hopes of an awkwardly amusing review, hopefully everyone will find reason to bear with Erik Yates and I as we hash out our experiences. And who knows, we may even have a worthy insight or two. We might get slightly spoiler-y (does anyone care?), but it’s all in the interest of covering a movie that’s more talking points than cinematic experience.
I, being a 40+ husband, father, and film critic, do not count myself among the initially baffling myriad of established fans. I’ve never read the book, am not a fan of the genre (Sub-genre? Sub-sub-genre??) of kinky romance, and haven’t had any contact with the work that apparently inspired it, the Twilight series. I can claim, however, to have snuck in a VHS viewing of Adrian Lyne’s similarly themed 9 ½ Weeks at age fourteen, and for what it’s worth, would give that film the edge in all departments.
Fifty Shades director Sam Taylor-Johnson seems to know what movie she’s making (blatant female fantasy), landing perhaps appropriately somewhere between the nudge-heightened vibe of Lyne and the gauze filtered indecency of Zalman King’s “skinamax” output. Taylor-Johnson approaches the material with all the enthusiasm of an impersonal day laborer, landing a meandering movie that leaves its stars to do the heavy lifting.
Based upon the infamous 2011 erotic novel by E.L. James that went on to sell 100 million copies worldwide and made a multi-multi-millionaire of its author (not bad for what started out as glorified Twilight fan fiction!), the film arrives amid a well-cultivated storm of ballyhoo all its own. Some are saying Universal Studio’s big budget adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey is destined to be the next Showgirls-level of large-scale jaw-dropping misfire. Others are focusing how the many reported layers (probably more than 50) of strife on the set have affected the marketing and the likelihood of Taylor-Johnson and stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan to return for any possible adaptations of James’ two follow up books. But the one thing everyone is in agreement on is that is that it’s going to be major hit, quite likely in spite of itself. That may well be the case, if the advance screening I attended was any indication. It was packed to capacity; the most crowded screening since The Avengers.
I’ve seen conservative St. Louis audiences get antsy and self-conscious during sex scenes. And while this doesn’t hold a candle to the level of discomfort and leaving the auditorium witnessed at the Blue is the Warmest Color screening, there was an awfully lot of shifting around, snickers, giggling, and coming and going. The vibe was somewhere between self-consciousness and utter boredom. I personally was surprised to find that I didn’t hate the film as much as all that, as I took it in as semi-functional on that purely un-ironic/false-veneer level of the venerable (and vastly superior) Douglas Sirk melodrama, and the sociological study every such effort invites. It’s a misfire and fraud, and it might even know it. But don’t tell that to the fans!
Erik Yates: I too am not the target audience, but I’m willing to deal with it based on what the film presented, and I agree that there is not much there in terms of substance. I felt no chemistry between the leads, and the side stories throughout make very little sense to the larger narrative.
What confuses me more than anything is why this is so popular? It has been dubbed “Mommy porn” in some circles as if this type of fantasy is ok for women, because hey…men have porn and that objectifies women but this empowers women to be open about their desires, etc. What is in the film, however, is a narrative that I think goes against any rational feminist argument for the movie because ultimately it is an anti-feminist film despite a female director and author for the book series that inspired it.
Forget the bondage aspects of the film for a moment. It is in the film, but the only nudity is really of the female variety, so women still remain objectified here. The more disturbing aspects are the character of Christian Grey himself. He has wealth, and power. He uses those tools to stalk a young woman, cut her off from her existing relationships and then ultimately asks for her to serve his needs as a “submissive” saying that she’ll learn pleasure only by giving him pleasure first. He tells her up front that he will not “date” her in a traditional sense. He doesn’t want romance; he won’t acquiesce to her wants or needs. She will be there as an object for him to nail (sexually speaking). But he really does want to be with her!!! He masks all of this in language suggesting that he really wants it to be consensual, going so far as to draw up a contract. Yet, how consensual is it really when you are introducing alcohol to your prey every time, and you are the one who has taken her virginity from her. Of course she is bonded to you. But if you put this kind of personality profile in front of any psychiatrist, you’ll find that this is the definition of unhealthy and possibly a dangerous relationship. Hollywood’s polish doesn’t change that fact.
Anastasia Steele understands that in the end and it is what leads to her actions to leave, but if the author or director were a man, we’d be having a much different conversation in the culture than this being “empowering” or just “fantasy”, as it is clearly destructive. Christian’s whole introduction to this world was based on him being abused by a female sexual predator, his mother’s friend, when he was just 15 years old. Abuse begets abuse, and he has learned well.
And even if you remove all of these disturbing details, it is still based on a male-centric worldview, which is another reason I think it truly is anti-woman, as it is still about pleasing the man alone. The female character of Ana is operating under the classic failed narrative that exists all around us where abused women stay with men who are destructive, often because they have convinced themselves that the man in question “isn’t really that way”, or they see signs that “he’s really changing”. Ana even finally asks Christian Grey why he just can’t like her for who she is, basically rejecting this idea of having her please him but getting nothing in return. But leading up to that, she has continually stuck with him, not out of some mutual affection, but under a delusion that she can get a man who has no interest in fulfilling her needs or wants to do so if she simply loves him enough for the change to occur. Having been the only man she has been with, of course her heart longs to be with him only. That is actually normal if one is looking at things through a traditional covenant based relationship model of marriage and romance. The same kind of relationship that Ana claims she wants from him.
Mutual submission in relationships is what truly is the ideal where both partners are willing to serve the other, at the expense of their own needs being met. In this arrangement they will find that when they serve and love someone fully, that it is often mutually returned and both individuals are satisfied and feel safe. Here it is one-sided. In fairness, the film shows this to a point, but the marketing of this around Valentine’s Day and the support for it amongst the fan base treat this as something romantic and a fantasy to aspire to, when really it’s another cautionary tale of a man with power using that position to suppress women for his own personal gain at the expense of hers. She’s the one needing a “safe” word. He has no need for such protection.
Jim Tudor: While I agree with you about mutual submission, let me play devil’s advocate here… I went into this film expecting the kind of one-sided debasement-of-women/warped fantasy (but trimmed to R-rated) that I’d heard the source material to be. But, I have to agree with the IndieWire critic who found the film to be “maddeningly conservative” at its core. Indeed, the film plays out entirely through Anastasia’s eyes, those of a perfectly contrived blank-slate everywoman whom every woman can project herself onto. Anastasia, we come to find out, is a virgin who’s been holding out for the right guy. For reasons we can only discern as sexual curiosity crossed with story contrivance, she allows herself to fall for Grey. Early on it’s obvious that he’s a man with issues (even before the film explicitly has him give voice to his origin as a dominant/submissive, confirming his secret lifestyle as fundamentally abnormal). But Anastasia Steele (such a name!) is no naive waif. And indeed, I saw no point in the film when she wasn’t the one actually in control of the relationship. Even at the end, when the oh-so-torrid S&M angle FINALLY, briefly plays out, it’s her breaking point that makes it matter. Ultimately, the story is a re-affirmation of all things Normal, telling viewers that if someone is into “the weird stuff”, then he has deeper issues, and should be avoided.
And that’s now my theory on why this whole thing has been so popular. I think it’s safe to say that these books and this film aren’t intended for people who are in fact into “the weird stuff”. Rather, the film uses “the weird stuff” to add a dash of twisted kink to the whole affair. This is not so dissimilar to 1932’s The Sign of the Cross in which Cecil B. DeMille wallowed in Christian mutilation and Claudette Colbert swimming naked in milk, all the while talking up biblical values. A big difference is that Fifty Shades is pure escapist female fantasy, albeit a contemporary multiplex version of it dumbed down to Michael Bay-like proportions of wrongheaded extremes. It is for its target demographic as it is for Ana – S&M is a momentary thrill to be observed, perhaps sampled, as opposed to understood.
Somewhere in the middle of the movie, there’s a throwaway scene that actually sums up the whole story. Grey decides to fly Ana to his place in Seattle, taking her to his inner sanctum for his dominant pleasure but really because she’s brought out a sharing vulnerability in him. His helicopter is a white gleaming sperm cell with a phallic face. Ana giddily climbs aboard, allowing Grey to reach over her, pull her lap belt, then Click! Inserts one shoulder harness and then Click! Inserts another shoulder harness into the same connector (located near her crotch). Then, he gives the whole thing a swift yank for good measure. None of this is lost on Ana, but she’s willing to give him that illusion of control. In her world, the assumption seems to exist that women are and always have been not just equal, but superior to men. The history of feminist struggle must be lost on her.
She’s never debased until the very end, and even that is only momentary. She may love him, but she does not truly need him or anything he has to offer her. All his manly posturing and success and wealth and sexual helicopters and stalking can and will be cut off at any time, because she is Everywoman in the 21st century. Dakota Johnson does her darndest to make it all work. Unfortunately, an Elizabeth Berkley-esque career tainting may be all the thanks she gets from having taken this role.
However you look at it, it’s about control. If Ana can’t have the kind of mutual (or as the film sees it, “normal”) relationship that society prescribes, she should and will settle for control. All the better and more affirming to control a notorious controller. Fifty Shades of Grey goes a long way (125 minutes, most of them felt) and shows a lot of skin to tell us that conventional normalcy is worth exerting control to maintain. Considering the hot potato reputation of this property, I frankly was expecting something a hair more scandalous. But in retrospect, this reading of its popularity makes sense, right down to the book’s credited popularization of the Kindle reader, which allowed women to read this nonsense with controlled anonymity.
Erik Yates: While I see aspects of what you point out, ultimately she had no control. She had the illusion of it. From taking time to never sign the contract, to getting certain things from Christian like sleeping in the same room as her, it was all allowed by him to get what he really wanted…..her playing in his “playroom”. Which she did. I still believe she thought he could change because he gave her just enough rope to maintain that false illusion of control. But when you see how unnerved she was when she first meets him to her crushing heartache when she realizes he will only hurt her (physically and emotionally), this is a woman who has been living under a false assumption that far too many women buy into.
In the end, I agree that this was as dull as dirt and did not at all resemble the scandalous nature of its reputation. Of course “grey” is a boring color, so we should have known. In regards to seeing this, I hope that people will utter the one word that gets talked about throughout the film but is never utilized that allows for the proceedings to go no further. It’s a safe word of sorts for the “submissive” in Christian Grey’s world, but it should be said before opening one’s wallet for this tripe: RED!