I remember reading ages ago about Quentin Tarantino’s obsession with bad movies, particularly that exact moment before a bad movie becomes un-watchable. He was fixated on finding out what specifically it was that made these terrible pieces of so-called art just good enough to keep us in our seats, watching.
We’ve established that 50 Shades of Grey is lousy. Not one critic has disputed that fact. Having said that, as far as I know, there have been no mass walk outs. People have remained until the credits rolled. I did. Admittedly, I shut my eyes several times because sometimes it was just that bad. But I didn’t leave.
So what is it about this film that kept us in our seats? It certainly wasn’t the sex, which is the only reason anyone bothered to read the book (before they discovered even that wasn’t enough). We all agree that Kelly Marcel’s script is an improvement on E.L. James’ cliche-to-end-all-cliches-which-is-itself-a-cliche-to-prove-my-point “novel” — the pacing, the dialogue, even the characters. And the cinematography sort of luxuriates beneath that elegant muted grey palette that Steve McQueen handled so much better in Shame. But is that enough to make something so unbearable bearable?
50 Shades of Grey is about an English lit major, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who falls for a brooding millionaire, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who happens to have a taste for S&M. A number of critics have argued that Johnson saves the film from being a total loss and I agree that she infused her character with several chewed pencils’ worth of much-needed charm. For them, that was enough to stay. For me, it wasn’t. But Dornan was.
I am not saying Jamie Dornan is a particularly good actor — his talent is debatable. He seems to hide his stiffness behind characters — see also serial killer Paul Spector in The Fall – whose personas are defined by that very same rigidity making it difficult to parse where his limitations actually lie. But there’s something about Dornan’s appearance that makes him so….watchable. As my date said, “He seems like he shouldn’t actually be as good looking as he is.”
There’s a deceptive simplicity to the way Dornan looks to the point that in her review on Slate, Meghan Daum, who described big screen Christian as “a symbol of the kind of generic, wholly unimaginative interpretation of ‘extreme wealth’ we tend to see on reality television,” dismissed him. “Dornan has one of those faces that makes you think you might have face blindness,” she wrote. “Every time he appears in a scene, there’s a split second of wondering if it’s him or someone else. Needless to say that doesn’t bode well for presence in the boudoir.”
Look closer. At first glance he’s handsome, at second he’s more cute. There’s something feline and playful about Dornan. And you can only really appreciate the different textures of his appearance when he’s in motion (his print ads show him looking so frosty he would be more at home in a morgue). Only when animated do his looks start to undercut themselves. For one thing he has a strange gait (“I have always had a complex with the way I walk,” he has said) which could be either the reason or one of many reasons he gives the subtle impression that he’s just playing the beautiful man. Granted this is not a particularly profound observation nor a particularly profound dimension to Dornan’s character, but it’s perfect for Christian Grey, whose surface is pristine, but whose interior is anything but.
Critic Christy Lemire has contended that while Dornan is no doubt handsome “he’s also supposed to be impossibly sexy and irresistible, and that’s never the case.” To me, Dornan offers something a lot more interesting — pseudo titillation (bare with me). He’s supposed to be sexy, but he’s an interloper as much as Anastasia is. What is attractive about him is the very fact that he doesn’t quite fit the mold he’s embodying. Surprisingly, it took a male critic to pick up on this anti-climactic (so to speak) aspect of the film where many of its female critics (50 Shades’ supposed target demographic) failed.
Richard Brody wrote at The New Yorker that 50 Shades is one of the rare films that focuses on foreplay rather than the act of sex itself. In the scene in which Christian and Anastasia sleep together for the first time, Brody argued that filmmaker Sam Taylor Johnson “shows him luxuriating in her body and awakening her senses to his touch. Though the director’s compositions are canny enough to keep the rating at R (I’ll bet the home-video release will be altogether different), she also captures the tactile intimacy of sexual relations (for instance, the fuzz on Anastasia’s thighs silhouetted in sunlight) and, in the process, gets closer to the molecular level of sex than many far more full-frontally-explicit movies do.”
We didn’t get off on Christian laughingly delivering the line, “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard,” it was the fact that he failed to do so that arrested us. As Jane Giles explained in Sight and Sound, “while James’s novel luxuriates in Ana’s descriptions of Christian, and particularly his erection, the film barely allows the viewer’s gaze to linger on the face let alone the body of Dornan’s character.” Instead we were left trying to figure out what it was about Christian that had Anastasia, and, to a lesser extent, us, so gripped. Had we been given a clear answer, there’s a good chance we would have pulled out sooner.Read More