I read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and I wrote an essay about all the issues in the book. The books are fun but they are a mess on a sentence level. As long as I live, I will chuckle at the phrase “white pinot grigio.” The books are also a mess in terms of how they portray BDSM. They are a mess in terms of relationship dynamics, and how the novel frames controlling, abusive behavior as sexy and romantic. Still, there’s something about the books that work for millions and millions of people, so to each her own.
When producers announced the movie I was thrilled because the only thing more amusing than a hot mess of a book is a hot mess of a movie. Turns out, particularly given the source material, Fifty Shades of Grey was a stellar film adaptation. The actors did a fine job. The movie was shot well. The soundtrack was pretty excellent. The movie was also overly long and quite boring during the non-sex scenes of which there were many, but what can you do?
The movie opens with Christian Grey going for a jog because he is a lone wolf who believes in physical fitness. I’ll be honest—Jamie Dornan, the actor who plays Grey, simply doesn’t do it for me. That’s totally fine–he’s a model and actor and he’s doing well for himself. He doesn’t exist for my pleasure but my overall disinterest in his physical appeal certainly compromised the viewing experience–that, and well, all the major problems with the story. Whatever. After his run he gets ready for work. His closet is obsessively organized because, you know, control.
Meanwhile, in a land far far away (or about three hours by car), Anastasia Steele is getting ready to interview BILLIONAIRE Christian Grey because her BFF has a cold which is not the same thing as Frank Sinatra having a cold. Her BFF kind of insults Ana’s outfit and then Ana is off the Grey House in Seattle. Yes, Grey House. On the fancy floor where Christian has his office, there are also beautiful women in sleek dresses, high heels, perfect make up and their hair slicked back.
At first Christian is an asshole and sort of terse and Anastasia is awkward but then Christian becomes intrigued and has one of his slick ladies cancel his next meeting. That’s the way love goes. We’re supposed to be interested in Christian because he is rich and handsome and emotionally withholding but I’m forty and that no longer turns me on so at this point, I desperately wanted to stare at my phone for a few minutes.
Christian later shows up at Ana’s job (she works at a hardware store) and he buys some suggestive items including rope and a selection of items befitting a serial killer. He’s staying in town for vague reasons and Ana asks him to do a photo shoot for Kate which he agrees to and after the photo shoot he and Ana go out for coffee. She makes the mistake of telling him she’s a romantic because DUH, she’s a literature major. This does not sit well with Christian, no not at all. He suddenly stands and dismisses Ana, walking her to the street because he’s not the guy for her. (He’s not the guy for anyone but whatever, details.)
I am pretty sure most women would have kicked his ass to the curb at this point but Ana is young and innocent so she’s willing to tolerate his bullshit longer. Ana has her finals and she and Kate go to a bar to celebrate when all that school nonsense is dealt with. Ana over-celebrates and drunk dials Christian who gets all stern on the phone, demanding to know where she is. Ana is drunk so she can’t tell him anything useful. Christian, magically or creepily like a stalker, finds Ana, and separates her from an overly handsy friend with a crush because he’s a hero I guess? Eventually, Ana passes out, Christian takes her back to his hotel and when she wakes up, there are refreshments and aspirin! We should all wake up hungover to such luxury. Christian appears bedside, sweaty from ANOTHER run (dude, calm down) and there’s some banter and flirtation. I guess we’re supposed to believe they are one step closer to TWU LUV.
Oh hell. I can’t do this. Normally I recap the entire movie but I simply cannot recap this entire movie. Fifty Shades of Grey is ridiculous because the book is ridiculous. I had fun, I laughed, and during the sexy scenes I pressed my thighs together (see: bad feminist).
The absurdities, however, were oh so many. First of all, there’s Christian’s sex dungeon in his hideous apartment. I say hideous because the apartment had no personality and was mostly empty and cavernous. It was the apartment of the world’s most boring man and it’s offensive that this guy is supposed to be a catch. He is a billionaire and can’t even buy himself a personality and that’s just sad.
Anyway, the sex dungeon or the “Red Room of Pain” as Ana calls it, is the exact room a very rich, very unoriginal person would have if he was trying way too hard to play the part of DOMINANT MAN.
I’m a freak and I thought, “This is quite excessive.” I would make do if I had to spend time in that room, but it was way too much. We get it, Christian. You are a boy who likes his toys. (I will admit noticing that we have the same leather couch only his is red and mine is brown and mine isn’t in a sex dungeon though I do call it the sex couch.)
True dominance requires no accessories, though accessories can certainly enhance a given experience. Or so I hear.
I suppose that’s what’s most frustrating about Christian Grey in the books and in this first installment. Christian is not an interesting man. He doesn’t enjoy anything. I have no problem gallivanting about with someone who has issues and demons so long as they have some flavor, but Christian Grey is just bland and damaged. Throughout the movie Christian makes it clear he likes to be in control but he makes this known the same way he might tell you he enjoys pea soup. Ugh.
On their first real date, Christian picks Ana up in a helicopter. It’s like The Bachelor! Because this movie is so very subtle, before they take off, Christian straps Ana into her seat like he’s putting a baby in a car seat and if you think about it too hard, that is pretty much what’s happening.
After an excruciating amount of foreplay, at least an hour of movie time, and Ana and Christian are about to have sex for the first time, he presents her with the infamous contract that someone clearly found on the Internet. When he finds out Ana is a virgin, Christian is aghast, and just like the book, he grabs her and says he’s going to rectify her virginity situation. He rectifies her alright and the camera spends a curious amount of time on Ana’s breasts. The screening I attended was sold out and the audience was rapt but when this rectify moment happened, I guffawed. I laughed until there were tears in my eyes and I felt no shame at all.
From there, Christian becomes petulant, needy, and impatient because Ana won’t sign the contract and she has actual needs and desires she would like respected. The nerve of her! He continues to be the world’s worst boyfriend only he also comes bearing expensive gifts–first edition Hardy, MacBook, Audi, clothes. I guess Ana is supposed to swallow Christian’s bullshit because of all the gifts but it hardly seems worth it.
There is a very sexy spanking and sex scene in Ana’s apartment but then Christian ruins it by refusing to spend the night. He is the worst! Why would Ana continue to see him given that he is an asshole who has no personality or interests? It is all so very confusing.
There’s another incredibly hot scene in the sex dungeon involving rope and suspension and a crop. It was really well done and I am certain everyone in the audience was holding their breath because when the scene ended, the temperature in the theatre had risen and we collectively exhaled.
I took NOTES (for “research”).
Sadly, from this point on the movie, like the novel, goes from being absurd and amusing to depressing and damaging. Christian is increasingly controlling of Ana and her time. He is increasingly demanding in what he wants from her. All the while, Ana is pretty reticent to surrender her autonomy but also unable to stand up for herself. We’ve all been there. I’m not judging. It’s just really annoying to watch. For 124 minutes.
And then there is the “punishment” scene. Again, I am all for kink and consensually challenging limits and the like. This scene was just a mess. Everything about the scene is contrary to how actual BDSM is practiced. Foe one, punishment should not be given in anger. Christian was clearly deep in his sad man feelings and he should have never agreed to do the scene. Then he does it, and is utterly confused as to why Ana wants nothing to do with him when it’s over. Really? Sir.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a novel and a movie. It is not a documentary. It doesn’t need to be accurate. It does not need to be wholesome. It clearly doesn’t need to be good to succeed. It would be nice, though, if entertainment created to cater to women’s desires didn’t offer us such a morally impoverished “hero” with whom to be enamored. We cannot have it all in life but surely we can have it all in fantasy. Surely we deserve an imaginary billionaire handsome, dominant, kinky boyfriend who is not abusive, boring, bland, and tormented.
Also, Jax Teller would have been amazing as Christian Grey. FACT.
Roxane Gay is the editor of The Butter.