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Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015)

“Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own beating.”

The curious thing about the film Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s got this subtext of vampirism. I mean, you can read it two ways – in Marxist terms and in feminist terms. Not party politically, and not in that shock-horror women get horny too, or the somehow already all too lacking in agency somehow get turned on by giving up agency being all about reclaiming power … this is clearly no more a BDSM manual than it’s a guide to business management.

Our virginal hero, Anaesthesia Steel is substituted for the manflu suffering flat mate to interview communications guru Christian Grey for a student newspaper prior to graduation. Having bagged a parking space right outside the sky scraping phallus that is Grey Mansions, Anaphylactic trips and and falls at Grey’s feet as the first point in a ten sequence of cringe. For all that journalist seems to have become an acceptable job for a female character post-Lane, maybe sleeping with your subject is not smart (see also Iron Man and Superman, sorta). Grey turns the tables on Anatomy and asks her what first turned her on to literature – Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë or Thomas Hardy. She says hardy, and she’s already demonstrated her Tess pure woman wet blanket qualities whilst he is not yet Alec D’Urberville. He had figured on Austen, no doubt casting himself as Colin Firth/Mr Darcy; I suspect he really should be citing Emily as he’s more Heathcliff than Rochester.

Christian offers her all manner of beautiful things – accommodation, a car, flights in helicopters and gliders, alcohol whilst telling her to abstain, in fact an aspirant upper middle class married lifestyle. (The glider was maybe a little over the top – the footage reminding me of those videos shown in laser video jukeboxes in takeaways in the 1990s.) All she has to do in return is give up free will and sign here. It’s maybe more extreme than the standard terms of employment or the Book of Common Prayer marriage service but, still…* It’s mettafa. SKY TV, live football, telephone calls, broadband? Put up with Page 3.

The interesting sequences start when she plays hard to get – but I fear the tale of Little Orphan Christian and his redemption will take prominence. Anastasia will make her peace with him as with capitalism.

Dakota Johnson seems fair enough as Anastasia, although if you want real kink watch or rewatch her grandmother in Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964); the film is set on the wrong coast but it channels her mother’s Working Girl (Mike Nichols, 1988) although it lacks a Sigourney Weaver figure. Jamie Dornan is really the character from The Fall, hiding from Gillian Anderson and switching accents to put her off the scent.** (I fell off this series after episode one of season two, so obviously this isn’t a spoiler.) If this film really were radical – and dealing in subjects recently banned on streaming online video in the 2014 amendment to the Communications Act (2003) – we’d get Dornan full frontal, instead he is barely semi. He’s pretty enough and has a Firth look.

The sex could be a whole lot worse. It’s nowhere near as objectifying as usual Hollywood fare. I’m reminded of Alexander Walker’s line (regarding Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)) that he didn’t know it was possible to be bored and have an erection at the same time. Not that it was arousing. I note from the credits that the film has three editors. Perhaps this explains the antiseptic feel?

Nearly twenty years ago I taught with Mike Sanders, Xavier Mendik and Charlie Blake a popular culture module that included Mills and Boon and Black Lace novels. It’s clear from the reception of such books – all too easily dismissed as formulaic in part because of their audience – that there is a complex connoisseurship and a nuanced set of uses and gratifications for the texts, ranging from erotica to comic relief. I’m pretty sure that Sam Taylor-Johnson – Turner Prize nominated – doesn’t want us to avoid ironised readings. But, having read one Mills and Boon novel that was meta fictive in scope, this needn’t be because a Proper Artist filmed it. But I do suspect it’d be less dull if Grey really were a vampire.

ETA: further thoughts on this film and a British film with a faintly similar theme,   The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014).

* Compare Helen and Rob in The Archers.

** I’m told the way to get through The Fall is to imagine it as a French and Saunders parody, with Jennifer Saunders as Anderson and Dawn French as Dornan. Curiously the same casting works as Steel and Grey.

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