BR: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

December 30, 2015 | By


FiftyShadesGreyFilm: Weak

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: n/a

Label:  Focus / Universal

Region: A

Released:  May 8, 2015

Genre:  Erotica / Drama

Synopsis: An English lit grad must decide whether to sign a contract and engage in a submissive relationship with a wealthy corporate bigwig.

Special Features:  Rated (123 mins.) and Unrated (129 mins.) versions / Tease of Fifty Shades Darker (1 min.) / Interviews:  “The World of Fifty Shades Darker” (50 mins.) / 3 making-of featurettes: “Behind the Shades” (20 mins.) + “E.L. James & Fifty Shades” (6 mins.) + “Fifty Shades: The Pleasure of Pain” (9 mins.) / Stills Gallery: “Christian’s Apartment: 360 Degree Set Tour” (26 mins.) / 2 music videos: “I Know You” + “The Weekend” / Music Video Raw Footage” “Fifty Shades” The Pleasure of Pain”.




In early 2015, the film version of E.L. James’ best-selling and ‘epic erotic novel’ – the first of a trilogy – debuted in cinemas, packing fans and the curious of this supposed literary phenomenon into cinemas.

James’ tale is centered on a young literary college graduate being enticed by a wealthy businessman harboring BDSM preferences, and a need for absolute control over his part-time girlfriend. The plot’s main hook is whether little Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) signs a contract in which any errant behaviour will result in a variety of punishments meted out by the enigmatic Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).

A folding together of Adrian Lyne’s 9 ½ Weeks (1986), itself based on Elizabeth McNeill’s best-selling memoir of life in a submissive / abusive relationship; and the classic Story of O, itself made into a classic erotic eurotrash film by Just Jaeckin in 1975, Fifty Shades of Grey is also tied to the strict allowances of the MPAA which is very sensitive to depictions of nudity and adult activities.

In Weeks, Elizabeth is enticed, wooed, and gradually exposed to a variety of borderline BDSM activities which themselves were limited to screen time due to a more sensitive MPAA, hence its music video montages that upscaled anything grey and non-consensual with flashy imagery and sounds. Things are often suggested rather than frankly depicted, and the so-called uncut version released to home video contained a bit more hinting than actual frankness.

Story, being a European production from the more risqué 1970s, was up front in showing the verbally contracted downward spiral of O, who becomes a punishment toy to her beau René, and bears assorted scars with the kind of pride unique to decade’s sleazy exploitation & erotica of which filmmakers, producers, and the indie productions companies seemingly didn’t give a damn what censors thought. The climate and freedom to push boundaries was enabled by chic porn classics (such as Beyond the Door and Deep Throat), and while frank, Story stayed safe in not combining hardcore footage with its ostensibly dramatic narrative.

The rare infusion of (minor) hardcore material lay in Radley Metzger’s The Image (1975), based on the book by Jean De Berg, in which a woman submits to a couple’s often humiliating dares and needs, ultimately partaking in a prolonged BDSM / S&M scenario that offered cinema audiences a crescendo of prolonged, shrill screams in the couple’s dungeon. Metzger’s drama was efficient, direct, and evocative; lean in dialogue and heavy in reaction shots; and neatly packed into a 90 min. running time, and proved cinematic naughtiness works when scenes are judiciously pruned to avoid the erotic film genre’s most dangerous pitfall: being dull.

Arguably North America’s own master, in terms of consistency and careful self-branding over his lengthy career, is Zalman King, a filmmaker whose works are often quite pretentious efforts showcasing dramatically structured erotica when in actuality his films and TV series are containers for silkily filmed and lusciously scored boobery and wanton gazes – slick softcore that only ran afoul of the MPAA when footage contained genitalia and sexual violence (much of which in works like Wild Orchid 2: Two Shades of Blue and the King-produced Business for Pleasure was retained in unrated video versions).

King, who co-wrote and co-produced Nine, may not have been the most astute writer (the dialogue in Wild Orchid, his biggest box office success, is hysterically ridiculous), but as a visualist and genre auteur, he transcended Lyne’s music video style by lingering on wordless exchanges, and testing the MPAA by sticking to his guns and integrating softcore imagery, often with a cast larded by mainstream character actors and / or the odd big star.

Most of the aforementioned films are distillations of literary erotic adventures, condensed and occasionally boosted by montages when the drama sags and the dialogue gets a bit too silly, and one would suspect the makers of Grey would’ve taken heed of their relative economy and constructed a similarly structured cinematic equivalent to James’ novel, but perhaps due to the author’s involvement with the film as co-producer, its weak casting, and / or the seemingly literal porting over of the novel’s dialogue by screenwriter Kelly Marcel, Grey fails in almost every aspect.

Its hybrid story is well-suited for the consensual-minded, politically correct audiences and conservative studios: nudity is initially sparse, dark sexual matter is alluded to rather than graphically depicted, and when the contract between the lovers is eventually drawn up – more than an hour into the film – it’s in a scene that’s really just a verbal tease which further delays the activities James’ novel keeps implying are imminently on the horizon.

Johnson looks and sounds the part of a doe-eyed student intrigued and lured by a corporate jet-setter, but Anastasia Steele is a banal creature whose only real dramatic moment is in the finale when she demands to know why Grey ‘wants to hurt her,’ an exchange that (finally) launches the film’s penultimate scene in which Steele’s emotional horror causes her to abandoned signing Grey’s contract (“No!”), and sever all ties… but setting up the second and supposedly grottier installment of the franchise.

That penultimate sequence – hard bum-slapping with Anastasia giving an increasingly strained verbal count – is perhaps the most severe behaviour a conservative author, director, screenwriter, and studio could muster to avoid a NC-17 rating.

Jumping back to James’ apparently generic antecedents, at the end of Nine, wealthy disciplinarian John Gray is revealed to be a bit of a poseur, an immature youth hiding under the fine clothes and upscale peripherals of a New York City entrepreneur, and his downfall is permanently losing Elizabeth (although subsequent direct-to-video sequels attempted to infer a reunion and foster a lame franchise). By the closing of Grey, Christian Grey remains a vacuous figure instead of enigmatic, or at least mysterious.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson attempts to build Grey into an alluring figure, a corporate titan with Hughesian freedom to whisk Steele away by company helicopter to another state, and later take her to new highs in a glider sequence blatantly appropriated from the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.

Wealthy Thomas Crown is also a human manipulator – instead of contracting women for submissive relationships, he contracts local crooks to steal beautiful art for a different kind of lust – but he meets his match (and strategic equal) when Catherine Banning makes it clear she knows he’s the real thief, and she will bring him down. Alan Trustman’s original story immediately sets up a human chess game between two hawkish personalities who eventually become lovers – Crown corrupting Catherine with his wealth and élan – and forcing her to decide between love and doing her job.

Christian Grey’s goal is to seal the deal with Steele and lock into a time-limited relationship of consensual debauchery, but what ultimately materializes is a finale that’s as schizophrenic as its leading characters.

Mature / dark matter (as well as nudity) was carefully edited down or hinted in both rated and unrated versions of Nine, whereas Grey’s makers held back on nudity in the touted unrated home video edit for most of the running time. The first real montage of promised erotica consist of quickly edited naughty bits, but it’s contrasted with a later (and classically blocked) R-rated scene in which Steele wakes up to the sound of Grey noodling some banal piece on piano, and rather than walk in naked silhouette to the dimly lit parlour, she’s wrapped Victorian-style in a big bed sheet. While the unrated material is more honest – a couple comfortable with their birthday suits – the R-rated material, as interpolated between the film’s prior and later graphic montages, comes off as absurd.

Grey is really three versions of a hybrid story: there’s a author’s prose narrative where words and imagery were able to prolong the drama and tease readers for the next (and presumably far more graphic) installment; the filmic adaptation that attempts to remain faithful to the book by being too literal in tone, its pacing, and awful dialogue; and the compromised film edits which in cinemas avoided a more restrictive rating, but on home video, further bloated the running time and clumsily meshed a conservative version with a more ribald one.

Dornan’s portrayal of Grey is surprisingly stilted – he’s ill-suited, and as inert as a mannequin instead of bearing any mystery or presenting Grey as a man in constant conflict in harboring a secret life and dark past (although burn marks on his chest and a vague admission to Anastasia suggest he spent his own term as a long-suffering submissive). Because Grey has managed to keep his closeted sexual life hidden from his family, there’s never a sense of danger (or embarrassment) from discovery, nor any tension when Grey and Steele meet the Grey clan.

Much like a Zalman King script, the siblings, best friends, and parents of the leading characters are almost caricatures with little if any influence on the central characters; they don’t really need to be seen, and as in King’s films, come off as poor attempts to open up the story because they’re so thinly drawn.

Whether for economy or the filmmakers’ own conservatism, the first Grey-Steele BDSM montage is a mélange of multiple moments from one long session or multiple sessions over hours that lack any dramatic build-up, and therein lies the film’s other prime fumble: amid its bloated and dreary running time, the director, screenwriter, and author / co-producer show no grasp of how to build tension.

It’s a montage that feels like a reluctant obligation because it happens so late into the film’s running time, and comes off as ‘Okay, here’s what you’ve been waiting for. Now shut up.’  It is a montage that briefly brings Steele closer to Grey’s intended world, but it lacks the continuity of an orchestrated climax integral to the erotic film genre. Even cheap, direct-to-video rubbish follows the rules, whereas the construct of Grey’s erotic material is designed for an imaginary ‘ideal’ audience that’s willing to swallow long periods of banality for the odd flash of R-rated skin.

Grey is a beautiful production: its colours are matted and muted, saving reds for Grey’s “playroom”; its cast is very attractive; the montages of flight (by glider or helicopter) give the film some buoyancy between static dialogue exchanges; and the sound design is subtle and sleek, and yet it’s such a shallow film that it can’t be improved even if its running time were knocked down to 90 mins.

From the original music cues, there’s a sense Danny Elfman was puzzled by the film’s length and lack of drama, and he opted to compose quiet bridge material that adds merely tones and soft chords between source songs – essentially connective material – since there wasn’t anything to draw from the two boring leads.

Everything about the characters remains inconclusive, as though the filmmakers were relying on further franchise entries to deepen the grit of the pair’s relationship, wherever that may go under the whip of Universal Pictures.

The film’s schizophrenic tone also suggests its so-called dark matter – a contracted, consensual relationship between a dominant and submissive pair – is regarded by author James as perverse. Preceding Steele’s plea to Grey be shown his intended actions in the finale, he turns away to a view of the skyline and mutters “I’m fifty shades of fucked up.”

Is this a sudden confession of guilt in a character who has shown none? The author revealing her unease with a franchise that might have gone out of control because it started as a protracted tease? An opinion that anything not clearly quantified as vanilla is morally bankrupt? Or a poorly penned line that infers depth when it’s really just a spastic throwaway line which, like the film’s obscene running time, functions as a tease for the ‘real’ dark material to follow if and when Universal greenlights the remaining sequels?

It’ll be interesting to see how James’ subsequent novels will be translated to screen – if the franchise can be sustained that long, and with the same cast – given the first installment has enough warning bells for connoisseurs of erotic cinema of its dubious quality. The adventures of Grey & Steele may suit loyal readers and the curious, but one suspects that in Europe, perhaps after the film’s first week of general release, there were more vocal chuckles & yawns than respectful silence.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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