Fifty Shades of Grey: A Film Review

by | February 13, 2015 | General | 7 comments

Fifty Shades of Grey is the first mainstream film based on an ‘erotic novel’ in quite a while; the last one I can recall was  Secretary, loosely based on a short story with the same title by Mary Gaitskill, but I could be wrong.

have been numerous recent art-house films considered to be erotic, like
Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour), and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend but none of these, to my knowledge, were based on written prose. All are more explicit than Fifty Shades of Grey,
and the last two mentioned are certainly, in my opinion, more erotic.
But they are also not as accessible to mainstream movie-goers since both
films focus on  same-sex couples. I admit to being bored to death by Nymphomaniac, but the opening sex scene of Von Trier’s Antichrist
still sticks in my mind as one of the most explicitly erotic pieces of
film I’ve ever seen. The rest of the movie was in need of a stricter
editor, but that initial scene is raw,  feverish and terrifying, which
is probably a telling clue as to my tastes.

Explicitness, it seems, is relative. There has been a great deal of television – True Blood, Spartacus, Deadwood, House of Cards, etc. – that is just as explicit as this movie, but those works don’t expressly promise to turn you on. Fifty Shades of Grey sells itself specifically as an erotic film.
I’d like to draw a distinction between erotic film and pornography
because it helps to explain why it’s not the lack of explicitness that
rendered Fifty Shades of Grey unerotic for me. I watch porn – I sometimes get myself off to porn – but I seldom consider it erotic.

narrative – filmed or textual – can be explicit, but it doesn’t have to
be. It doesn’t serve to remind our bodies that we’re mammals who seek
pleasure in the vague and often failed hope of conforming to our
biological imperative. It addresses our cultural mind and talks, not of
sex, but of what we as humans have made of it: not urge, not drive, but
desire. Eroticism is seldom about the pleasure felt or the orgasm; it’s
about the desire to get there, all the cultural and personal detritus in
which we wrap that pilgrimage, and the curious delusion from which we
all suffer that there is some tremendous, epiphanic mystery that lies
beyond that moment of pleasure.  We settle for less. We settle for the
orgasm and the intimacy and the delusion fades, until the next time.

like watching animals fucking, porn works on my lizard brain. It works
at a very uncritical, unthinking and physical level – it speaks to my
muscles and my glands but not my brain. Porn that made attempts at
narrative always put me off because it was invariably facile. People
used to put narrative into porn as if they needed an excuse to show
people fucking, but we’ve gotten past that. Now we just have video of
people achieving orgasms in various ways. For me, porn is a bit like
running the faucet in an attempt to encourage urination; sometimes it
works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not as if we don’t remember how to pee
theoretically, but the sound of that water running kind of bypasses the
understanding part and nudges the bladder to take the jump.

is about love – a cultural construction but no less powerful for that.
It often has a sexual dimension, and this is undoubtedly true for Fifty Shades of Grey:
the story of a young woman who falls in love with a very rich man whose
sexual practices are – even if she is intrigued by the trappings –
repugnant to her. So, essentially, Fifty Shades of Grey is, for
all it’s superficial focus on sex, neither pornography, nor erotic
film. It’s a love story. Some might consider it a very conservative sort
of love story, because the main character (not in the movie, but by the
third volume of the novel) trades the sexual relationship she would
prefer for love. This is what women have done for thousands of years.
anyone who has practiced BDSM, the book and the film are both rather
offensive parodies. Like spies who watch espionage thrillers, or
soldiers who watch war films, or doctors who view medical dramas, there
is always a sense of the false depiction of their lived realities. Fifty Shades of Grey
portrays a highly fictionalized and poorly researched approximation of
BDSM. All the props (too many, in fact) and none of the soul. There is
none of the visceral understanding that BDSM is not a game of sexual
‘Simon Says’ but an erotic experience that people go into very
willingly, driven even, to ‘queer’* the biological imperative and revel
in the ways that culture has embellished it.

There has always been
dominance and submission in mammalian sex, BDSM unpacks it and examines
it, dissects it and revels in the dichotomy of humans as animals and
humans capable of making a conscious choice in the power dynamic.
Similarly, there has always been pain and danger in the nature of
biological sex; instead of trying to mitigate or overlook it, BDSM
reveals it, gazes into it, glories in it. Semiotics – the many layers of
meaning we ascribe to any given word, act, person or event – are
central to BDSM, even when we don’t explicitly acknowledge them. The
handcuffs, the crops, the floggers, the wooden spoons, the sterilized
needles, the corsets, the gags are not tools without context. It is
their historical and social semiotic baggage that makes them erotic.
BDSM is an erotic defiance of allowing things, people and acts stay in
their socially and historically ascribed places. That’s why it’s
fundamentally obscene and immoral to whip a non-consenting individual
and deeply erotic to whip your consenting submissive lover. It may
appear sexist and unfeminist when a male is dominant and a female
submissive, but consider that both parties have made a deliberate choice
of positioning, in disobedience of what cultural norms are now or what
they have been in the past. We didn’t have a choice. Now we do and we
exercise the choice consciously. It is an intentional transgression, a
defiance and sometimes a parody of the status quo.

What makes the trappings of BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey
so upsetting to practitioners is not just the absence in both the book
and the film of any sense of BDSM’s complexity, but the knowledge that,
for many people in the mainstream, this is their first encounter with
something purporting to be BDSM. Sociologist Eva Illouz points out that
erotic romance in general and Fifty Shades of Grey in particular is being consumed as a kind of dramatized, sexual self-help guide.

Fifty Shades of Grey
serves up a heady cocktail of paradox. It glamourizes BDSM, adorns it
with conspicuous consumption, bling, polish and muted lighting, while
responsibility, agency and choice are hauntingly absent. Meanwhile,
subtextually, BDSM is pathologized, criminalized: Christian Grey is into
it because he was abused. The only other practitioner we even hear of
is his first lover – a dominant, pedophilic woman who initiated him at
the age of 15. So the message is: the sex is hot, the toys are
expensive, and the only people who really enjoy this are sick. It’s not
difficult to see why so many in the BDSM community are ambivalent about
the book and the film. Much like EMTs who complain about the way film
portrays CPR. Of course, if you performed CPR on film with veracity,
you’d risk cracking someone’s ribs while boring the audience to death. 
If the BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey was performed with any
level of veracity, there’d be a lot more sweat, snot, welts and
screaming. It’s likely there’d be a few more obvious orgasms, too. I’m
sure neither of the starring actors would be willing to expose themselves
quite so thoroughly, even if those sorts of details had been in the

Personally, I’m not so concerned. Hollywood is constantly
producing films where women are innocent victims with little or no
agency – this is just another. It’s also constantly pumping out films
where characters make monstrous compromises in order to be loved. I’m
sure many filmgoers will return home after seeing the film and attempt a
bit of tie-me-up-and-spank-me’, and most will survive it. A very few
may find it immensely erotic and seek out more informed and detailed
sources of information. It may lead to some undesired and upsetting
bouts of rough sex, but so does going to a bar and by all accounts, so
does attending many universities. It might even result in a few
break-ups as partners find their tastes are incompatible. But, let’s be
honest, anyone with even an inkling of interest in BDSM may seek out far
more explicit and harrowing videos on the net.

Fifty Shades of Grey is just not that important a film. Go see it. Just don’t expect to come away with a new lease on your sex life.

to the book, the dialogue is pretty cringe-worthy. Jaimie Dornan came
across as a joyless, humourless, self-important pedant. He reminded me
of guys who tell you they’re ‘Doms’ but turn out to be bitter, mean,
self-pitying and entitled little boys. But, in all fairness, that’s how
Christian Grey is written in the novel. Dornan’s far, far sexier as a
serial killer in the British series The Fall. However, I found
Dakota Johnson much easier to stomach than her textual counterpart; she
did the best she could with the lines she had and I found her smile
rather contagious (even when I was trying hard to dislike her
lip-sucking). She really does have a very erotic mouth. Finally, if
director Sam Taylor-Johnson does a poor job of visualizing the eroticism
of BDSM, she more than compensates for it by making helicopters,
gliders, Audis and interior decor look sexy as hell. My guess is that she
finds wealth a lot more erotic than kink. But then, sadly, so do most people.

Remittance Girl

Remittance Girl lives in exile in Ho Chi Minh City where she writes and grows orchids. Her erotic stories have been published in Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association, Garden of the Perverse: Fairy Tales for Twisted Adults, and Lessons in Love: Erotic Interludes 3. Her stories have also appeared on the ERWA website.


  1. Chocolatezeus

    Excellent review. You were descriptive and broke things down. Enjoyed this thoroughly.

    Thank you

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    RG, I cannot imagine anyone more qualified to review this film. This is a masterpiece.

    Alas, none of the people who should read this probably will.

  3. Lynne Connolly

    A great and thoughtful essay. Thank you.

  4. Spencer Dryden

    This is such a powerful, articulate and insightful post. I only wish it could find its way to something like the Huffington Post.

  5. Daddy X

    Exellent post, RG!
    So thorough, any comment would be redundant. To echo Spencer- lots of people should read this.

  6. Madeline Moore

    Thank you RG. I read the first book. I'll see the first movie. When I can see it for free. (Hey, I paid for the book!)

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