Should we really be that surprised that Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) is a good film? One of cinema’s great virtues is its ability to transform the dimestore aesthetic into art. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of the infamous novel is no exception; brilliantly perched between cold irony and combustible trash, it’s a knowing and funny picture that yields riches by adroitly shifting the agency of the novel to its female protagonist. The source of the eye-rollingly predictable derision that greeted the film sight-unseen is the book’s runaway success, resulting in an incongruity of standards in which serviceable sentimentalised pornography was unfairly judged against the slightly more literary standards of popular fiction.
Admittedly, the book is risible when viewed in this light, but the origin of the contempt is deeper. As a cultural phenomenon, the novel revealed the furtive ugliness of the middle class id; we profess bourgeois ideals, but we are as capable of base, retrograde caprices, drawn to material that defies our perceived moral impulses. We either read it ourselves or knew people who did – how repellent. Male commentators – the same ones who greet the announcements of new Marvel films with solemn reverence – unleashed a barrage or vitriol and ridicule, perhaps fearful of female sexuality being placed at the centre of the culture. This is where the film excels; Taylor-Johnson flips the book’s facile narrative of subservience, making young college student Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) the driving force of the relationship with imposing, potentially psychopathic billionaire Christian (Jamie Dornan).
To boil it down to a single idea; Taylor-Johnson feminises the De Palma id. In the 70s and 80s, the great auteur’s films focused on the voyeuristic male who willingly places himself at the mercy of the fantasy female ideal seen through the lens. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia is the protagonist drawn to the chiseled ideal and she chooses to submit herself to Christian for the promise of transcendent sexual and romantic fulfillment. On the surface, Christian appears to be the aggressor, but Anastasia has the control and the decision to lose it is solely hers. It is a picture in which the woman is the subject and the man is the object; a concept hitherto anathema to big studio productions.
Some saw the film’s sexual restraint as a failure of nerve akin to prudishness, but Fifty Shades of Grey is a picture about fantasy; its eroticism deriving from what could be around the corner. It recognises that the sexual ideal exists only in pre-coital possibility, not in the messy reality of the act itself. Taylor-Johnson plays with this notion throughout, subverting audience expectation by couching the run-up in the language of contract negotiation. This idea is pervasive; Christian’s world is a coldly palatial one in which control and money are wrapped up in his surroundings. If capitalism is the answer, then even sexual transgression must subsume itself into it. But there’s no escaping the flickers of humanity on Anastasia’s part; it emerges in a bravura downbeat ending that feels loaded with regret. In the book, it was a cheap cliffhanger, but under Taylor-Johnson’s direction, it’s an act of desperate resignation.