Just last year Lars Von Trier made a couple of movies about sex. They were really about sex. About its power to seduce and waylay. About its magnetism and addictive tendencies. About its joys and horrors. In Volume II its heroine Joe visited a mysterious young man whose office sat at the end of a sterile corridor in an abandoned building. She didn’t really know what he did, but she was drawn to him. He told her to bend over the arm of his couch. He bound her wrists and ankles, lifted up her dress, pulled down her panties. “That’s not how this goes”, he said. “Most people don’t scream until I hit them”.
Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) could have been that man, albeit richer and more affected by his richness. His corridor walls would at least have had wallpaper. He is a telecommunications magnate in Fifty Shades Of Grey (based on the worldwide bestseller of the same name), swimming in money and untold power, proven by his occupational freedom; apart from a disgruntled phone call and a couple of scenes in a boardroom, he is never seen working.
All his time is spent fixated on the lithesome, naive Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), whose name on the Fifty Shades Wikipedia page helpfully includes “Ana” as her nickname. Anastasia — okay, Ana — is Kate’s roommate, who’s supposed to interview Mr. Grey for the school paper, but can’t because she’s ill. So with a huff and a puff Ana steps up to take her place, and wouldn’t you know it, her meeting with the estranged billionaire is so intense and, dare I say it, dirty, she has to cleanse herself in the rain moments after stepping out of the building. Ooh mama.
Now he’s all she can think about, the lucky woman. She retreats to the boredom of her classrooms, nibbling on the pencil he gave her. She’s spent her life searching for Mr. Right, and now he’s barged his way into her life, looking not unlike a GQ cover model pretending to be Edward Cullen from the Twilight movies (“Fifty Shades”, after all, was inspired by Bella Swan and the vampires).
And just like the Twilight movies, the romance that develops hinges not on passion or love, but fearsome sexual magnetism that, if not for the contrivances of the plot, would seem completely out of place. As pointed out in reviews across the board, Ana and Christian are wholly incompatible. She looks like she just walked out of Sunday School, he looks like he just bought the church. An equals sign is missing from the equation.
I agree with these thoughts. But I am more intrigued by their incompatibility than I am befuddled by it. I think underlining their awkward relationship is the potential for a truly great story. It’s just never nudged at.
There is a certain realism to Ana and Christian that might require the analysis of a psychiatrist, but I am sure it’s there. The foundation of this story is sadomasochism and bondage, a unique sexual fetish that involves pleasure in the form of pain between a dominant and a submissive partner. I’ve done my research on this and found that it is a fascinating concept where the knot holding it all together is not pain, or pleasure, or even sex, but trust. The submissive must trust his or her partner to deliver pain in copious amounts without maiming, causing lasting harm, or killing. The dominant must trust his or her partner to be, well, submissive, unconditionally. The trade off seems unfair, but what Christian promises is not entirely untrue. Both partners will be devoted, unquestionably. “What’s in it for me?”, Ana inquires. “Pleasure”, Christian replies. “And me”. It is widely known that pain in the right amounts and in the right places can be viscerally sensational. This is why many people enjoy sexual spankings and rough intercourse. In a few of Fifty Shades’ meek sex scenes, Ana experiences this for herself.
But bondage and sadomasochism are fetishes of particular taste. You either have it or you don’t. What Fifty Shades struggles to let loose is the physical, mental, emotional, and sexual tensions that could arise should one of the partners opt out of the deal. Christian has it. Ana doesn’t. This is winked at whenever Ana feigns obedience and submission to Christian, then giggles under her breath, as if amazed that Christian can be so serious about such a ridiculous form of release.
Ana’s needs for a “normal” relationship are not entirely unjustified either, and at some points I truly sympathised with both of them, because she, for whatever reason, loves this man, and he, for reasons he can’t quite articulate, cannot love her the same way. Most romance movies come packaged with the obligatory scene where the two destined lovers find a meagre excuse to hate each other, only to fall back in love at the end. Fifty Shades is the only one that actually makes sense, because sexual tastes differ to such a degree, and the game the two of them play is merely a stalling tactic that tries to postpone what they already know — that they are just not compatible. The closing scene is a good one.
Alas, the movie cannot cope with such heavy, heart-wrenching material, and disintegrates into an endless string of humdrum scenes and painfully tepid dialogue. There will be more of these movies on the way, and I, never having read the books, am sure that Ana and Christian will fall back in love somewhere down the road. Before they do, however, I suggest they watch Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Both of them need sexual cleansing.
Best Moment | I can’t remember the exact words, but there are a few conversations between Ana and Christian that express true desires, thoughts, and fears. If only the rest of the movie caught on and continued down that path.
Worst Moment | Pretty much all of it.