Review of Fifty Shades of Grey: Film is sexy, thought-provoking but deeply offensive to women

Meenakshi Shedde

Feb 14, 2015 17:03:55 IST

Yes, dearies, I was among the privileged few to get an invitation to the special gala premiere of Fifty Shades of Grey at the Berlin Film Festival on Wednesday. The film, detailing the sado-masochistic relationship between a university student and a 27-year-old billionaire, is helmed by a woman director, Sam Taylor-Johnson. Starring newcomers Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, it is an adaptation of EL James’ best-selling novel. While the Fifty Shades trilogy first appeared as Twilight fan fiction (and was booed by the internet forum where it was initially posted), the modified version in which Edward Cullen is transformed into S&M-loving Christian Grey has sold 100 million copies worldwide.

Hysterical fans had lined up all along the red carpet in the bitter cold, as the film's celebrities were in attendance. However, when I asked several of the young squealies whom they were waiting to see, they said, “Oh, I dunno, I’m just here for the excitement.” Which is a telling sign of what cinema means (or needs) today: Fifty Shades of Grey has already sold an estimated 4.5 million tickets in 39 countries, and is slated for release on February 13. A lot of Indians considered me lucky because the prevailing belief is that the Indian censors will bobbit the film when it comes to India later in February. I’m not so sure, about me being lucky, I mean.

 Review of Fifty Shades of Grey: Film is sexy, thought-provoking but deeply offensive to women

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Fifty Shades is about a university student, Anastasia Steele (Johnson), who goes to interview a billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan) for a college mag. Sparks fly and they immediately embark on an affair. But he’s into ‘corporatized sex’ and S&M and after getting her to sign a non-disclosure agreement, he still wants her to sign a formal S&M contract -- that she will submit to everything he wishes, that she will eat well, be in good health, and not drink or do drugs.

In other words, she will be a warm sex machine, with multiple options that he can play at will.

While Anastasia never signs the contract, she goes against her own instincts, unable to resist the high-pressure seduction of wealth. Christian's expensive gifts of a car, first-edition books, helicopter rides — usually material objects — are rewards for being routinely smacked on the bottom, tied up in his bed, blindfolded and whipped with a ‘flogger’, riding crop, and more, until, brutalized, she finally leaves him. I suspect this Valentine’s Day will be kinkier than most in the countries where Fifty Shades is being released tomorrow.

I suppose it’s a well-crafted film — if you’re into S&M. Lots of beautifully lit, lacy lingerie-clad soft porn, camera lingering endlessly over Johnson's neck, breasts, navel, buttocks, curled toes. Here are a couple of telling lines that tell you all you need to know about the film (excuse me while I throw up):

Christian (as pick-up line): I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.

Christian: I am a Dominant. I want you to surrender. If you follow the rules, I will reward you, if you don’t I’ll punish you.
Anastasia: Why would I want to do that?
Christian: To please me.
Anastasia: What do I get out of this?
Christian: Me.

Actually I think it’s not so much risible narcissism as a man imagining himself as a conquistador that makes you want to roll your eyes so often at Fifty Shades.

Dornan is efficient as a surly, sexy, pathologically possessive stalker, but Johnson is captivating. She does the gauche-sexy-naïve-smart really well. The brisk screenplay, with sparks of humour, initially drew me in, but as misogyny and S&M are not on my list of jollies, I found it wanting — and deeply offensive to women.

There was no turning point in the story when Anastasia feels enough is enough. It's just a continuous raising of the bar on misogyny until the last scene. The revelation that Grey was abused as a child does not justify his position as an abuser now. In fact, the best line in the film comes when Anastasia’s mother tells her, "I wish I could tell you it will get better but I can’t, but you will learn more about who you are." Indeed, the intelligent Anastasia is a sexual slave, but always by choice.

Taylor-Johnson is a British visual artist and director who also directed Nowhere Boy on the childhood experiences of John Lennon. If I were to reflect on what she brings to the film as a woman director, I’d say her film also touches a chord because women worldwide submit to, and put up with, trying men in so many ways (including sexually), but are not always able to admit it, especially to themselves.

There is a long cinematic tradition addressing perverse sexual needs, misogyny and S&M, from Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour with Catherine Deneuve, to Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, and Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll (in which a middle-aged man who finds human relationships “annoying,” is friends with, and has sex with, an inflatable sex doll, but complications arise when she develops consciousness and falls in love with someone else).

While Fifty Shades is not my cup of tea, I’m all for classification of films, rather than censorship. But given how much films influence behaviour, I am concerned for women — including Indian women, who have so much violence wreaked against them already. With this film, men will have a few more new tricks in “hanky-spanky,” as Variety magazine described it. Because it hovers in the tantalizing, dangerous grey zone of “consensual sex.” Yet it is also a cautionary tale for even intelligent, independent women, who routinely trade their bodies, dignity, souls for shiny trinkets—by choice--and sometimes don’t even know it. For this, I would recommend the movie.

Meanwhile, the caravan moves on: Taylor-Johnson confirmed she is in talks to direct the next two films of the trilogy.

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist.

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Updated Date: Feb 14, 2015 17:05:33 IST