Sex sells. Movie producers and marketers have known this
since the earliest days of silent films. But mainstream pictures tend to steer clear of kinky sex; films like Last Tango in Paris and Nine ½ Weeks made headlines but didn’t play to mass audiences here in the U.S. The canny people behind the adaptation of E.L. James runaway best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey have made all the right moves, not pushing the envelope beyond an R rating and couching its s&m quotient within the confines of a somewhat conventional romantic drama. Whether or not this will please the readers of James’ writing I
cannot say, but it works surprisingly well as a movie.
It all boils down to this: it’s easy to relate to Dakota
Johnson’s character, an English lit major from Portland who chances to meet
handsome young tycoon Jamie Dornan, though his reserve and ultracool demeanor make him somewhat
intimidating. When he reveals that in spite of his ardor he does not date or
sleep with women but prefers to dominate them in his “playroom,” she is
understandably put off. They make love in the traditional way. Then they negotiate.
She stands up to him. And when she finally agrees to explore some possibilities
in his preferred arena, she is tentative. Meanwhile, he begins to bend his own
rules, because he truly wants to be with her.
Working from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel, director Sam
Taylor-Johnson makes sure Johnson’s character never loses her credibility or
relatability. And while Dornan is much more elusive, the fact that he winds up
becoming more romantic, in spite of himself, makes it easier to digest his dark
desires. Taylor-Johnson manages to create moments of palpable tension and
eroticism with “tasteful” nudity and discreet use of Dornan’s bondage devices.
The movie tries to have it both ways, relying on traditional
tropes where Dornan sweeps Johnson off her feet—figuratively speaking—by showing
off his luxurious penthouse and taking her for a ride in his private
helicopter, then swinging to the opposite extreme with a scene of spanking or
whipping. But because we never lose sight of her response to these moments, the
movie stays on course.
Fifty Shades of Grey
may not be the film some heavy-breathing readers were hoping for, but it does
represent a (careful) step over the line by Hollywood standards. Will this
alter the template for love stories in general? I wonder.