Movie review: Light bondage aside, Fifty Shades of Grey's real lust is for corporate power | Arts
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Friday, February 13, 2015

Movie review: Light bondage aside, Fifty Shades of Grey's real lust is for corporate power

Posted by on Fri, Feb 13, 2015 at 1:50 PM

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Fifty Shades of Grey

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Fifty Shades of Grey is a slick commercial for the eponymous Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and his cult of work. In director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of the hit erotica series, work and love are almost indistinguishable.

The much-remarked retrograde sexual politics of E.L. James’ franchise is definitely present, but what is most curious about the film is its insistence that Grey’s sexiness resides almost entirely in his corporate brand, rather than in his person. Grey-branded personal helicopters, buildings and lobbies populate the mise-en-scène. After first meeting Grey, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is presented in extreme close-up with a Grey-monogrammed pencil pressed to her lips.

This is just one of the ways that Fifty Shades suggests corporate fellatio.

The first in a trilogy, the film tells the plodding story of Steele, a wallflower college student, meeting Grey, a young entrepreneur. The plot moves through tiny developments in whether Anastasia will or won’t accept Grey’s contract, becoming his submissive in an S&M relationship.

Yet the film deals very little with the erotics of sexual transgression that it positions at its center. Johnson and Dornan have all the sexual charisma of a broomstick with bangs emoting in front of a well-formed cleft of Silly Putty. It’s really about the more banal, but also more insidious, relationships that women in their 20s tend to enter into with mysterious, often toxic men. It’s a film about the erotics of emotional control, whether at work, in love, or both.

In fact, the pair’s forays into light BDSM constitute the most consensual and reciprocal moments of the story. Grey blankly warns Anastasia that he cannot love while stalking her around the country in his private helicopter. Still, both in and out of the bedroom, Steele strives for Grey’s love like it’s her job. Johnson pulls a serviceable performance out of Kelly Marcel’s very limited script, while Dornan’s expression alternates between inertly squishy and constipated. Steele striving to find herself, reflected and recognized in the monolith that is Grey, constitutes some of the only watchable moments.

Director Taylor-Johnson emerged from the Young British Artists group that rose to prominence in the art world of the ’90s, which also produced conceptual artist turned Hollywood director Steve McQueen. But unlike McQueen, Taylor-Johnson does not bring a flair for concepts or feelings to filmmaking. Rather, her directorial work exhibits the worst aspects of the contemporary art world’s merger with the broader entertainment-industrial complex: celebrity worship and blank irony that never seems to take off as critique, institutional or otherwise.

Fifty Shades makes a few stabs at humor, but they remain just stabs. What’s more, Taylor-Johnson displays no apparent knack for image-making. The slickness of the art direction and soundtrack (featuring a remix of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” and various songs by The Weeknd) only add to the film’s ambient vagueness.

The wager on big franchises like this is that they will not be a critically adored, but that they will capitalize on an existing fan culture. But those not versed in the Fifty Shades universe are given no reason to buy into Grey’s brand. The most disappointing thing about the film, which makes it barely suitable for a hate-watch, is simply how boring it is. 

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