fifty-shades1[xrr rating=2.0/5]Adapted from the popular erotic novel by E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey is as unsexy as movies about sex get, though it’s not for lack of trying. There’s a ton of carnal activity here, all of it involving two good-looking, heterosexual white people, one of whom has an intense BDSM fetish. But where the book gained infamy for stirring up the libidos of stay-at-home moms the world over, all the film stirs up are confused and unflattering views of sex, desire, relationships, ambition and alternative lifestyles, effectively muting any erotic potential. Competently, if garrulously, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose background is in fine art and video work, Fifty Shades of Grey is fine enough as an offseason studio melodrama, but unlike its BDSM-practicing characters, the film doesn’t leave a mark.

The story’s heroine is Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a college senior who interviews suave multibillionaire businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her school paper. He’s an entrepreneur with lots of toys—a helicopter, sports cars, a grand piano and, as we come to learn, a secret collection of whips, chains, handcuffs and other medieval ephemera he uses for BDSM sex play. Drawn to his fetish, naïve and virginal Anastasia agrees to mull over a meticulously detailed contract that will make her the submissive to his dominant. This is not a romantic arrangement, the contract states, but a business deal that will essentially make her his sex slave.

Structurally, the film is intriguingly simple, revolving almost exclusively around Anastasia and Christian’s ongoing negotiations, which consist mostly of exploratory BDSM sex, though none of it is any more salacious than what you see in erotic thrillers from the ‘80s and ‘90s, like Body of Evidence, Fatal Attraction or Sliver. Really, Fifty Shades of Grey is never more provocative than when the characters are fully clothed and discussing the parameters of their unconventional arrangement, occasionally resembling a Bergmanesque chamber piece by way of dime-store erotica. It’s easy to see sub-dom politics as an intensified version of conventional relationship politics, particularly with regards to sex and gender roles as they relate to broader realms of choice and consent, but Fifty Shades of Grey is solely interested in titillation, wasting an opportunity to broaden the sexual conversation.

In its depiction of BDSM, the film strives for ultimate steaminess, but the air is completely stale. Dornan and Johnson lack chemistry, although, given Christian and Anastasia’s contractual—literally—relationship, it’s oddly fitting, albeit dramatically inert. It doesn’t matter that Dornan is a big, bland hunk of nothing on screen. His character is meant to be a big, blank slate, a hulking metaphor delivery system that alternately represents corporate America, the masculine ideal, sexual agency and any other male-minded symbol you can imagine. Anastasia is a similarly amorphous entity, a seemingly lucid, strong-minded person one moment and a doe-eyed nincompoop the next, and her maddeningly inconsistent behavior is exacerbated when the whips and chains come out, her sexual naivety both a source of dramatic tension and her only consistent character trait.

And therein lies Fifty Shades of Grey’s most glaring contradiction: it falls back onto hackneyed, gendered characterizations even as it deals with a supposedly transgressive subject, using BDSM’s alarming nature as showy window dressing for an utterly conventional romance story. Christian’s sexual fetish is intriguing to Anastasia, but it’s also the result of some emotional turmoil she makes a point to remedy; she considers his contract and endures his kinks, even enjoys some of it herself, but she desires something else, and aims to make him desire it too. She wants love, but in Fifty Shades of Grey love is less an emotional and intellectual ideal than it is an obligatory safe word, a portal back to the mainstream.

That said, Fifty Shades of Grey needn’t lead the charge in normalizing BDSM. Neither the film nor the book has any overt cultural or social leanings, and besides, most kink practitioners would probably prefer their lifestyle remain alternative to conventional tastes. But even the faintest acknowledgment that sexual desire and romantic desire aren’t necessarily one in the same would have proved a provocative sentiment in a film whose supposedly salacious intentions ultimately lead to squarely safe territory.

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