Fifty Shades of Grey gets at the complexity of sex — until it loses its nerve

The buzzy movie hints at a more complicated story before devolving into melodrama

Those who only know Fifty Shades of Grey by reputation might be surprised to learn that it doesn't open with whips and chains. Early in the story, protagonist Anastasia Steele tells Christian Grey that she's a virgin. He reacts with genuine surprise, exclaiming, "Where have you been?"

There are two ways to read that line. One is right on the surface: he cannot believe that she lacks any sexual experience. But there's a less charitable interpretation: after a long hunt, he's finally discovered a virgin to seduce and manipulate. With crisp, impersonal direction from Sam Taylor-Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey manages to maintain this uneasy balance between sexual honesty and exploitation — until, unfortunately, it loses its nerve.

The script by Kelly Marcel wastes no time getting to the Meet Cute between Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan). She's an undergraduate English student; he's a billionaire bachelor. To Dornan's credit, he doesn't launch right into smoldering seduction; instead, he observes her as if she's his prey, with a mix of attention and impersonal curiosity, while she gradually disarms him by speaking frankly. Taylor-Johnson frames this meeting so that Grey dominates the space, and her directorial flourishes only get more obvious from there: reeling from sexual tension, Anastasia is soaked in rain as she leaves the office. (She's apparently the only person in Seattle without an umbrella.)

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There are more improbable early meetings in Fifty Shades of Grey, culminating with their first sexual encounter, which — in a departure from the book — Taylor-Johnson shoots from Christian Grey's perspective, with the camera lingering on Johnson's breasts. The novel is written from Anastasia's perspective, so it's a curious screenwriting choice that there is no voiceover, denying the audience an opportunity to hear her thoughts. Fans of the book can fill in the details, but for the uninitiated, this sex scene is not the start of Anastasia's awakening; it is the start of a relationship defined by one-sided cruelty, told in the guise of transparency.

Over the course of their subsequent encounters, Christian goes into more detail about his kinks. He is careful to say he abhors romance, and instead prefers that women sign a detailed contract. Essentially, it stipulates that Anastasia will become Christian's sex slave, or "submissive," and it includes everything from "hard limits" (e.g. no vaginal fisting) to hygiene requirements. The latter half of the film is all about whether she signs the contract. At first, Johnson handles this material as if she's the star of a romantic comedy, with humor and reserves of "girl next door" pluck. It's a smart choice, almost elevating the drama into camp, but the high-wire act eventually falters. The requirements of the movie's premise mean that Anastasia's arc must tilt toward suffering.

The tension of the story hinges on Christian's failure to realize that his negotiations with Anastasia do them both a disservice. The misfire of Fifty Shades of Grey is that Taylor-Johnson fails to realize it, too. Anastasia's first big step toward signing the contract is a "business meeting," where they go line by line over what's acceptable. Taylor-Johnson plays the scene for laughs, shooting in an otherworldly board room with exaggerated orange light, while her actors are cheeky about naughty words. The trouble is Christian is either an idiot to overlook Anastasia's naiveté — remember, he's supposed to be her first — or he fully understands her innocence, exploits her anyway, and is basically a sociopath.

Ironically, Fifty Shades of Grey is at its least sexy when Anastasia indulges Christian's "Red Room of Pain," a well-upholstered sex dungeon that's full of whips, dildos, and riding crops. What happens in this room is mostly vanilla: Christian introduces Anastasia to her toys, gently caressing her naked body before they have sex. After a gentle strike to Anastasia's hand, he explains that she must overcome her fear to reach pleasure. The script and direction, however, ignore that the room is meant for maximum fear and intimidation: they might as well be in the darkest part of Christian's mind, with the added wrinkle that Anastasia conflates sexual desire with romantic desire. The payoff of their final encounter is a cliffhanger, but the film fails to acknowledge the ill-formed development of her sexual identity. Christian robs Anastasia of an important part of her adult life without either of them realizing it, and the film does significant damage by sliding into tedious melodrama without addressing Christian's malformed need for control.

In cinematic terms, the most erotic thing that can happen between two people is genuine communication, whether it's verbal or not. In contrast to Fifty Shades of Grey, the recent art film The Duke of Burgundy illustrates this idea brilliantly: the two lovers at its center find sexual thrills through ritual and repetition, to the point where their sensuous role-playing nearly overtakes their emotional needs. Another, more recent example of unlikely eroticism is last week's episode of the spy drama The Americans, in which a husband pulls a tooth from the mouth of his suffering wife, in a moment loaded with trust, communication, pain, and a strange eroticism.

It's a complicated dynamic to convey, and a bar that Fifty Shades of Grey, sadly, proves unable to meet. For all the buzz, Fifty Shades of Grey ultimately loses both its nerve and its soul, and its kinky sex amounts to little more than nude, bloodless aerobics.

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Alan Zilberman

Alan is the film editor of Brightest Young Things and a freelance arts writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written about film for The Atlantic, RogerEbert.Com, The Washington City Paper, and IndieWire.