Kink should be deviant. Let me be clear: I’m not saying kinky sex is abnormal or perverse. It should be a deviation on what is largely defined as traditional sexuality even though the very notion of “traditional sexuality” is highly debatable. I’m sure there are people out there who think deviant sexual behavior is anything other than missionary with the man on top and no eye contact. Sam Taylor-Johnson‘s Fifty Shades of Grey is about two people engaging in “kinky” sex in safest, blandest, most inoffensive fashion possible. There’s nothing remotely titillating about it Taylor-Johnson thoughtlessly depicts stereotypical kink and then coats it in a flavorless romance with only her female lead giving the movie a hint of personality.
Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a shy, reserved, sheltered English major who’s sent to interview wealthy businessman (whose occupation may as well be “Wealthy Businessman”) Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and in one of the film’s few clever moments, Anastasia trips and looks up at Christian while she’s on her knees. Despite an awkward interview, Christian is taken with Anastasia and proceeds to woo her in casual ways like giving her a ride on his private helicopter. When she falls for him, he reveals that he “doesn’t do romance” and his sexual interests are “very singular.” His dark secret is that he’s into bondage and dominance/submission. Christian wants Anastasia to be his submissive, and she must decide if she can enter into a loveless relationship with a man who proclaims that he’s unable to love.
Which is total bullshit. Love is the axis of the entire movie, and there’s no question that Anastasia and Christian love each other, and the only obstacle is if they can give each other a specific kind of intimacy. She wants cuddling and dates, and he wants the most boring kinky sex imaginable.
The sex scenes are shot in the most gentle, alluring way possible, and it’s rarely kinkier than Anastasia wearing a blindfold or having her hands bound with a necktie. While I wasn’t expecting a movie on the level of Lars Von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac, Taylor-Johnson feels that it’s enough to have Christian drag a flogger across Anastasia’s naked body and then “whip” her with less strength than it takes to open a jar of pickles.
Here’s the thing about Fifty Shades of Grey: it’s not an inherently bad premise. We can harp on its origins as Twilight fan fiction, but author E.L. James may have stumbled upon a sexually daring concept that managed to connect with a mainstream readership. I haven’t read the book, but the inclusion of BDSM at least provides seed of a story that can challenge an audience and make them struggle with intimacy they recognize but have trouble understanding. There’s the potential to put us in Anastasia’s shoes and make her sexual journey alluring but also intimidating and even frightening. Kinky sex is not a hug.
But every time there’s a sex scene, Taylor-Johnson smothers it in the most romantic music and nicest lighting possible. There’s not a single edge to be found in the entire film. When Anastasia tells her roommate that Christian is “intense” and “intimidating”, it made me wonder if she has some severe social phobia or if she’s terrified of statues. Taylor-Johnson isn’t interested in ferocity or passion; she wants to show the sad, wounded heart that lies less than a millimeter beneath Christian’s flimsy exterior.
It doesn’t help that Dornan’s performance is awful, and I feel bad for fans that will be saddled with him for two more movies. Say what you will about Robert Pattinson, but at least he understood that his job in the Twilight movies was to be cute and gentle. Like the hook of Fifty Shades of Grey, the concept of Christian Grey isn’t inherently bad. I like the idea of a debonair businessman who is willing to give Anastasia anything she wants as long as she becomes his sex slave. But instead of being invested in what his character wants, Dornan comes off as completely uninterested in the entire relationship. He struggles to provide more than one facial expression, and his robotic performance never hints at a man who has a sexual appetite so fierce that he has an entire room filled with whips, handcuffs, and rope. (During my moments of boredom, I wondered about the thoughts process of the contractor who had to build Christian’s sex room.)
The saving grace is Johnson, who acts her co-star off the screen even though he gives her absolutely nothing. It must have been infuriating for her to play a real character—a young woman who has her own goals and desires, but she’s also wracked with uncertainty—and get absolutely nothing from a man who is supposed to be obsessed with her. Johnson’s performance is from a better movie where Christian actually displays the kind of coldness, intensity, and danger the actor is supposed to exhibit.
And if Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t dangerous, then what’s the point? The movie can have characters mention “vaginal fisting” and “butt plugs”, and while I certainly have no desire to see that, they’re supposed to indicate the extremity of Christian’s desires. But there’s absolutely nothing extreme in the movie or even slightly unsettling. The only person this movie could surprise is someone who would never go see Fifty Shades of Grey in the first place. For everyone else, the only shocking things about the film are its tameness and timidity.