Trilogy July 30, 2019
t’s a preposterous first meeting. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a 21-year-old English major studying at Washington State University Vancouver,
is sent by her aspiring journalist roommate, Kate (Eloise Mumford), to interview Seattle millionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the campus newspaper’s end-of-year edition after getting the flu. The meeting is ethically preposterous, first of all. If something comes up, journalists typically reschedule or suck it up, not send stand-ins. It’s also geographically preposterous. It’s about a four-hour drive from Vancouver to Grey’s downtown Seattle headquarters, but it’s rendered a quick trip — something you could pull off with a taxi. While Kate and
Anastasia (we'll call her Ana) are best friends and roommates, I have a hard time believing that even the most loyal a buddy would drive all that way for a Q&A that could otherwise have been conducted over the phone or email. (When Ana comes home, Christian has sent all his answers, in detail, to Kate’s Gmail account — something at which Ana smiles, if you can believe it.)
Nonetheless, the meeting of Christian and Ana winds up being a preposterously important one; that it's preposterous to begin with is something most people involved in the narrative inevitably forget anyway. It works as the beginning, of sorts, of an intense romantic and sexual relationship that will burgeon between Ana, a lip-biting virgin whose closest experience to seduction is her getting acquainted with Thomas Hardy’s prose, and Christian, an S&M practitioner whose wealth is always discussed in obscure terms. Christian will first ask Ana if he can see her again soon after she interviews him, her words laden with double entendres; things will progress from there.
Little about Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), the movie that’s this goofy purely on a logical level in just the first five minutes, isn’t preposterous, though. I’m sure you know, even if you haven’t read the source material, like me, a decent amount about the book and its two sequels, Fifty Shades Freed and Fifty Shades Darker, without ever have actively engaged with them. They are all erotic novels written by the British author E.L. James. Some of their interludes first originated as Twilight (2008) fan fiction on various forums. Each is poorly written. (I haven’t read any of the novels in full, but I did thumb through a chapter or two a few years ago out of morbid curiosity when my mom borrowed a copy from someone in her book club. I couldn't imagine James' clumsy prose improving with the passage of time, based on what I read.)
The books are decidedly long-winded exercises in decadent pornographic literature. (The average length is 550 pages.) I can remember how surprising it was when a mainstream movie adaptation not distributed by someone like Porn Hub made its way into the public consciousness a few years ago. Aside from the erotic thrillers released in spades in the 1980s and '90s, the mainstream hadn't lapped up anything comparable to Fifty Shades of Grey since, arguably, the porno-chic phase of the 1970s. I was a senior in high school when the first adaptation came out. I mostly heard that it was really bad but had a good soundtrack from some of the more-daring fourth-years. I missed movies two and three, but the buzz seemed to endure until the last film in the trilogy was released in 2018.
In the intervening time, I became fans of Johnson, through her collaborations with the Italian director Luca Guadagnino, and of Dornan, through his performance on the serial-killer thriller TV series The Fall (2013-2016) and a stellar albeit blink-and-you'll-miss-it supporting turn in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006).
The other day, on a whim, really, I decided to marathon the Fifty Shades movies in the aftermath of an unusually dispiriting finals week. Over the course of a few evenings, I found, to my delight, that what I was watching was not the shoddy, Twilight-esque franchise I’d been led to believe I’d be in for.
don’t care for the term “guilty pleasure": it dismisses any sort of value of the work being discussed; it suggests that there’s something to be ashamed of for liking a particular artifact. Yet “guilty pleasure” might be the descriptor that
most aptly describes how these movies made an impression on me, since my liking of them comes with some conflict. They’re largely conservative, catering to tired fantasies of submission and of women having to “save” men from their demons. Christian is a childish, tortured (and not interestingly so), and dull embodiment of the tall, dark, and handsome man visually of future-husband daydreams galore. The sex scenes, though shot acrobatically and across locations — in the third movie, for instance, Christian and Ana have rough sex while parked in an Audi R8 immediately after a city-wide car chase — are perfunctory and pop up so regularly (as expected) that I wouldn’t be surprised if these were the sequences audience members adjudged the best times for bathroom breaks. Christian is also constantly having sex with his pants on; these films are more a celebration of the ass crack than the icky “coin slot" skit from that episode of Saturday Night Live with Lindsay Lohan. Milestones in the narrative — marriage, an unexpected pregnancy, promotions (in the third movie, Ana is ludicrously promoted to a fiction-editor position at the publishing house she works at while she’s on vacation) — arrive hastily, written without shade or feeling.
But I ate up these films in the same way I would a Judith Krantz novel or anything related to the goings-on in Peyton Place or in a fictional, 1980s-era Dallas. All of them almost entirely comprise sleek, shiny surfaces. We’re only ever looking at beautiful and rich people milling about in mansions, high-rise skyscrapers, hard-to-get-into restaurants. Sam Taylor-Johnson, who directed the first film, and James Foley, who was behind the second and third, don’t generate anything by way of heat or immediacy out of the plots, but they at least helm with competent erotic-thriller brio.
Problems unrelated to sex and skin are pleasantly melodramatic. In the second movie, an erstwhile, visibly damaged lover of Christian (Bella Heathcote) who looks almost exactly like Ana stalks the premises throughout and eventually makes threats with a gun. Christian gets her to calm down by scolding her as if she was a keyed-up Pomeranian. In the third film, Ana’s old boss, who got “taken care of” by Christian in the second chapter for sexually harassing her, seeks revenge, leading to a frenzied car chase and a kidnapping, among other things.
There are some strange, darkly funny side characters. There’s Kim Basinger as Elena, a sphinx-like business partner who taught Christian everything he knows about sex beginning when he was, er, 15. There’s also the forever-hungry pop star Rita Ora, who randomly begins playing a major part in the ensemble in the second movie as Christian’s bubbly adopted sister Mia. (You only see her briefly in a blunt bowl-cut wig at a dinner party in the first chapter.)
There’s an emptiness to it all, of course, since these movies’ most obvious forebears are soap operas that preference sizzling, twist-heavy storylines over thoughtful characterization. Never is it questioned, either, how much money, glamor, and status might be playing roles in Ana’s eventual domination. Would she be saying no to a character like Christian if people weren’t saying his name in italics all the time, or if the offered amenities were nonexistent? Interestingly, none of the features are conventionally terrible, or even so-bad-they’re-good. They effectively function as mindless, well-made soap operas. They're so engaging, in large part, because they consist almost solely of melodramatic tropes with a serving of sex. There's a stupid, beach-read level of fun to them.
It also helps that the Fifty Shades trilogy has Johnson. Ana is not supposed to be a rounded character. Like Bella Swan and most other young heroines at the center of fantastical romantic-fantasy stories, she is written as a cipher — an amorphous woman with interests and values, sure, but ones that are not so specific or idiosyncratic that the predominantly straight female audience members can’t feel comfortable living vicariously through her. Johnson makes the underwritten Ana appear alive behind the eyes in ways Dornan can’t make his Christian. Throughout the series, Ana is consistently good-humored; Johnson sprinkles in a wryness that can't be written. Her line readings come with a super-subtle glibness that emphasizes what it must feel like to be at the center of silly sexual fiction come to life.
In Ana’s interactions with Christian, whom she often makes fun of (“Of course you do,” she says to herself when he reveals that he can sing well and play the piano), there are lots of funny “get a load of this guy”-isms. In a vapid, girl-power-ish scene in the first movie, Ana negotiates with Christian over a sexual contract (!) he had her sign earlier on in order to ensure things be on her terms. An actress less witty than Johnson would fall victim to its puerility, but Johnson turns it into a showcase for deadpan comedy. She can turn a line like “what’s a butt plug?” into an opportunity for the movie’s implicit silliness to come to the fore in a way that feels knowing rather than corny.
Will the Fifty Shades books and movies have an enduring legacy like, say, the works of Anaïs Nin, or spiritually similar movies like the Emmanuelle franchise (1974-1993) or Nine and a Half Weeks (1986)? As erotic dramas, they’re more often failures than they aren't, the sex scenes among the least compelling things about them. (By contrast, Nine and a Half Weeks was difficult to embrace because, while the sexual interludes were charged and stylistically inspired, the drama was desert-dry.) What I picture for the Fifty Shades films, then, are viewings like mine — ones inspired by a late-in-the-game wondering of “what’s this all about?” that goes a step further than mere speculation, followed by realizations that they’re all, at the very least, not so gray. The books I can't be so sure about. B