For Valentine’s Day this post is all about one thing.
Sex. Making love. The horizontal mambo. Bumping uglies. Making whoopee. Banging. Doing it. Intercourse. Sexy times. Laying pipe. Boning. Doing the nasty. Making the beast with two backs. Screwing. Fornication. Nookie. Hanky panky. Bow-chick-a-wow-wow. The pants off dance off. Humping. Shagging. A roll in the hay. Porking. Coitus.
Spoiler warning in full effect. I’m going to be talking about the endings of these movies plainly. Side note: I’ll be using the term BDSM a lot. While I am aware that it is possible to have the B without the DS and the SM without the D or the B and such, for simplicity’s sake in the review I’ll use BDSM as kind of an umbrella term for those kinds of kinks.
When I decided I would take a look at movies focused on sex for Valentine’s Day I knew I had to just go ahead and tackle the leather clad blindfolded elephant in the dungeon: Fifty Shades of Grey. Plenty has already been written across the internet about how the book of the same name titillated readers everywhere with its scandalous ways. Plenty more has been written about how it got those scandalous ways all wrong. Having never read the book myself but only the reactions to it I did my best to put all that aside and form my own opinion.
Let’s start by reviewing the movie as just a movie and skip over its representation of BDSM for now. Anastasia Steele finds herself in the office of
genius billionaire playboy philanthropist Christian Grey and the two begin a heated courtship. Ultimately though they find they both want different things from the relationship and painfully breakup. Seriously. That’s it. Take away all the kink and that’s all we have in terms of actual plot. Admittedly I’m not the target demographic for most romance movies, but I can enjoy one once in awhile but I was feeling each minute by the time the credits rolled. I’m not saying a romance can’t be the main story of a good movie, I’m saying that this particular romance was dull. Apparently Christian Grey is incredibly attractive and Ana has that special something that makes her Different From All The Other Girls. If the actors made me believe it I’d let those tropes slide but the performances from the two leads feel lifeless. For a movie about sexual exploration there is very little honest passion on the screen.
Even more frustrating than the lack of passion is the lack of an ending. Once Ana has decided that she does not want to be a part of the kind of relationship Christian is looking for she leaves him unequivocally. We’re given a few scenes of them both looking morose, an impression that Christian will pursue her further and then…hard cut to black. There is no feeling of resolution, positive or negative. I realize there are more books that will almost certainly be adapted into more movies but even a movie that is an entry in an ongoing series should reach a satisfying ending to leave things on even if the story isn’t yet complete. I think someone dropped the ball in editing; a little retooling could have better communicated the sense that this chapter was closing rather than coming to an abrupt halt.
But nobody is here for the rich character development! They’re here for the Red Room of Pain! While those scenes are indeed sexy, there are much simpler ways to enjoy that kind of entertainment than sitting through everything else in this movie. Porn is why God invented the internet, after all.
So the movie overall is no good. But how well does it actually represent BDSM? Taking into account that the movie is a work of fiction and some license is allowed for fantasy, it’s actually not too bad. I had heard from some that the book was a train wreck, and it may be, but there is nothing woefully egregious in the movie. The scene in which the two of them start negotiating the particulars of the contract that will define their relationship is actually quite humorous, and open clear communication about sex is always a good thing. Consent is king in BDSM play and Christian never does anything to Ana without her agreeing to it first. In fact one of Christian’s final acts in the movie comes when he is trying to chase after Ana to keep her from leaving and she very pointedly tells him to STOP, and he does. (At least for the time being.) Safewords are properly instituted even if they’re never used in the movie. At the most basic levels Fifty Shades gets it right.
I did have problems with a few things though. First and foremost is the feeling that the movie is trying to conflate Christian’s BDSM desires with a traumatic experience. Getting turned on by whips, chains, and giving or receiving commands does not require coming from a broken home or having dark secrets. Secondly, when Ana asks early on why she would adhere to his strict set of rules Christian responds “To please me.” Now, the concept that one person’s only goal is to be sure that the other is pleased may be part of their particular way of playing, but at the foundation of that play it is actually enjoyable to both parties. Ana has not yet agreed to anything and is expressing distinct hesitation but Christian is focusing on what he wants her to be, assuring her that she’ll like it. This is alleviated a little once they actually do start to negotiate the details, but he remains steadfast that she should submit totally. The entire time he is trying to impose his will onto her. He appears to care very little about what she wants. While that may be what dominants may appear to be doing to submissives in BDSM relationships, that is a dynamic that has been previously agreed on by both parties.
With no knowledge of the ending, I was pretty sure these two weren’t going to work out. Why? Because they want different things from the relationship. I think it’s safe to say that after getting over her initial fears Ana enjoys the activities that take place in the Red Room. But when Christian spanks her as punishment for rolling her eyes she is confused that sex doesn’t follow. It really was just a punishment, not foreplay. It was a taste of the kind of submission Christian really wants from her. By the end of the movie she still hasn’t signed the contract but not because she objects to the activities per say, but the true submission. Gather around and let me drop some terminology on you. In kinky play there can tops and bottoms as well as dominants (doms) and submissives (subs). If someone is “bottoming” to a “top” then they are on the receiving end of the activity, for example a flogging. However there is no power exchange, no sense that one must obey the other. It’s simply a good time for everyone, only a physical act. The bottom could at any point say he or she is done and go chill out. When someone is submissive to a dom, however, a previously agreed upon power exchange exists. The sub is, to some extent, under the command of the dom. This is a much more mental form of play than just being a bottom. I propose that Ana would be totally ok with being a bottom to Christian while still having a more “typical” loving relationship the rest of the time. She is most definitely not ok with being his sub however. It when Christian tries to enact this mental level of play in the form of control and behavior modification that she rebels. They simply want different things. Once I figured that out, long before the characters, I knew they were doomed.
So the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey gets its BDSM basically correct with a few problematic issues. Too bad that it’s such a slog of a film otherwise. If you’d like a more entertaining film about BDSM may I suggest Secretary. In this dark romcom that predates Fifty Shades by several years Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee who goes to work as a secretary for James Spader, who is hilariously named Mr. Grey, and the two enter into an unusual work relationship. Mr. Grey is coming to terms with the fact that he enjoys controlling and spanking women. Luckily, Lee enjoys feeling pain as it helps her deal with negative emotions, so it’s a win win! The two never go through a proper negotiation so that everyone can consent to the activities that will take place, but I can give the movie a little wiggle room there as both parties are discovering their interests and seem to be growing together.
That potentially sticky issue about consent aside Secretary does a lot things with its BDSM theme I really enjoyed. Lee has a problem with hurting herself; whenever she is faced with very negative emotions she cuts or burns herself to mask the internal pain. Through being Mr. Grey’s sub she finds a safe and sane outlet for those desires and stops harming herself in dangerous ways. Where Fifty Shades suggested that kinky desires were the result emotional issues Secretary says that those desires can actually help to cope with those issues. I was also very glad to see that they both very much enjoyed their activities and the struggle of the movie came in the form of realizing that it was ok to have these desires and not from one pressuring the other into them. The movie even uses the common trope of one character doing something crazy and wacky at the last minute to prove their love and puts a BDSM spin on it.
Fifty Shades of Grey left me with the idea that while, yes, sometimes being blindfolded, cuffed, and whipped can actually be enjoyable, the idea of submitting your body and mind to someone else or wanting to have that kind of control over someone is strange and wrong. Secretary sends the much more level headed message that, hey, if both people are into it and they’re not hurting anyone else, go for it!
You shouldn’t yuck anybody else’s yum.
Other movies I watched this week (potential minor spoilers):
Hot Girls Wanted – This documentary about “pro-amateur” internet porn follows a handful of young women as they enter the industry. It mostly highlights the negative aspects that arise in the business; preying on young women’s naiveté, treating them only as a commodity to be sold, and the trend of porn sites to feature some form of violence toward women. I like a documentary best when I feel like there is a story of some kind to be told, some loose narrative, and this one accomplishes that by focusing mainly on one woman who entered the industry, dealt with the fallout from her family, and ultimately returns home. This movie feels a little slanted toward the negative, but is still decent if you’re interested in the subject.
Cam Girlz – A documentary profiling several cam girls, women who perform in front of a webcam for tips or customers who purchase exclusive time with them. While that last documentary I mentioned had a negative slant this one is entirely and unabashedly positive. All of the models speak about self empowerment, putting their own creativity into their shows, and the freedom that the job allows them. This documentary only serves to give those performers a chance to express why they enjoy their work, which is admirable, but simply watching a string of profiles without a through line ultimately felt a little bland. There is a naked Jedi and sexy accordion playing mime though. So, ya know, there’s that.
After Porn Ends – This documentary features male and female porn stars telling stories of their time in the business as well as how life goes on afterward. Some return to the business, some face constant stigma, some go on to do great charity work, and unfortunately some die of disease contracted while performing. Highlighting both the good and the bad this documentary feels like the most balanced of the three I watched and is worth watching for those interested in the concept of dealing with something society deems to be dirty and shameful.
The Babysitters – Married man John Leguizamo enters into an illicit relationship with a cliché, er, I mean the babysitter. Getting used to the idea of getting paid to come over mostly just to have sex, she gets the bright idea to start her own prostitute ring with friends at school setting herself up as the madam getting 20%. Played not for laughs but for drama, this movie never condemns the idea of paying for sex. What it does focus on is how the girls are too immature to be prepared for all the ramifications of their plan; the attachments that can arise when real emotions mix with business and the troubles that crop up if you run into the wrong john. Leguizamo is great in just about everything he’s in, and the younger actors all put in good performances that kept me fearing the inevitable moment when it all comes crashing down.
Amorous – You know Eddie Izzard’s description of British movies? That’s this movie. Two men and two women all take a vacation from their urban lives and retreat to a small cabin in the country where they experiment with polyamory. The conceit of the movie is a little nebulous as we’re given very little information; I don’t even know the extent of these characters’ relationships with each other before the cabin. Once there though they begin to timidly experiment with letting love and desires flow freely between them all. Some very odd moments ensue as they entertain themselves each evening, but by the end the four of them have grown very close to one another and pledge to let their group relationship grow and evolve free of societal norms. Some weirdness and slow spots aside this one left me with a smile and is a good watch if you’re looking for a positive example of polyamory.
Anatomy of a Love Seen – Two actresses who fell in love while shooting a movie together, in particular a love scene, and then had a rough break up are thrown back together during reshoots. Drama ensues. The few supporting characters fall flat. The two leads give strong performances but there simply wasn’t enough substance to this one to keep me with it.
A Perfect Ending – Without much longer left to live a woman hopes to right some wrongs in her life as well as find passion that she never felt in her marriage. So of course the answer is a call girl! Kudos to this movie for allowing an actress who was 59 at the time, considerably older than your average starlet and with some of the physical “imperfections” that come with age, to unashamedly be a sexual being. As the two women grow close and try to overcome the skeletons in their proverbial closets genuine performances made me smile and gives this film a very bittersweet feeling. And bittersweet is kind of my wheelhouse. Also, Morgan Fairchild is the madam. So, yeah.
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 – A nympho and an ace walk into a bar… Circumstances bring a nymphomaniac woman to recount her life of debaucherous addiction to a man who’s asexuality makes him an impartial judge of her morality. The only thing offensive about these two movies is how boring they are. And they’re split into two films because there’s four hours of it! While the story of someone’s addiction destroying the lives of those around her sounds dramatic, everyone’s delivery is so dry and unenthusiastic that boredom sets in almost immediately. Oy.
Eyes Wide Shut – I don’t care much for Stanley Kubrick on the whole, so I was worried going in. Married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman try to cope with feelings of jealousy (in the movie this time, not real life) until Cruise crashes a party that is two parts swingers club and one part weirdo cultish secret society. Found trespassing, he is now stalked by the club…he thinks? The movie never lets you know for certain if the club is actually a shadowy organization with far reaching powers or just a bunch of rich jerks who feel important when they wear masks and perform made up rituals. What I interpreted as an extended metaphor for dealing with guilt after cheating on your spouse, this movie in true Kubrick fashion gets really weird at times. I can go with weird when it pays off, but this movie fizzles out by the time we reach the final scenes making the trip to get there feel like a waste.