I cannot really talk very convincingly about female sexuality, because I am not female. I can, however, I think, discuss freely how two female film directors present notions of desire and subversion in two films that I have seen over these last two days, ‘Two Mothers’, a curiously impactful and well-acted film about transgressive, almost incestuous, love affairs with much younger men (by director Anne Fontaine), and the much discussed, and supposedly ‘scandalous’, ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’, a looming cultural blockbuster which I simply could not resist watching as a Monday matinee yesterday afternoon, just to see what all the fuss was about.
I had to see it. I just can’t resist these ‘cultural phenomena’. And if I did, would I find the film offensive? Laughable? Total rubbish? Would I agree with the accusations by women’s groups that the film essentially constituted a condoning, or glamourizing, of domestic abuse in allowing its main protagonist, a female college student, to become entangled in a sado-masochistic relationship with a controlling and sexually ‘dominant’, whip-wielding billionaire? Did the film merit being boycotted? Or should I, instead of sitting in my plush cinema seat quite merrily watching Anastasia’s silken buttocks being spanked by an Adonis with a tassled tussle, have compassionately donated money to a battered women’s shelter?
These questions, and more of them, are what make a titillating sexual cause celèbre, and it seems that every era has one. Be it Last Tango In Paris, Nine And A Half Weeks, or Basic Instinct (all of which I quite like), these are the films that have interest groups marching outside the cinemas shouting degradation and exploitation, or even in the case of Fifty Shades Of Grey, actual women-on-men violence (see today’s screaming Daily Mirror headline: ” Rowdy women glass man at Valentine Day screening of sexy film” ), with drunken women vomiting in the aisles and the cinema staff cleaning up blood from the seats, (none of which will, I am sure, do any harm to ticket sales). I, also, couldn’t help being drawn into the media mayhem, and the film was, as it turned out, far more enjoyable that I was expecting it to be given all the media hoopla for and against: to me it was a solidly made mainstream entertainment that treated its themes perhaps over carefully, but also with definite sensitivity, and to my great surprise did indeed come across as a strange kind of tender, twisted love story whose conclusion, in the already in-pre-production sequels, I am now quite intrigued about.
What I can’t understand entirely is what people are objecting to. The nuts and bolts of the story, as I see them, are essentially these: a beautiful, emotionally damaged man, himself a (willing?) victim, as a fifteen year old, of a submissive-dominant relationship with a much older woman (a friend of his mother’s), a woman he is mysteriously still in contact with, has now amassed a great fortune and is a hugely successful businessman yet clearly unhappy. He has very specific ‘needs’, both sexually and emotionally, and cannot allow anyone to get too close to him (nor even to touch him without his permission); seemingly frozen in his world of immaculate grey suits, views over Seattle, and business, until a beautiful, sweet, educated, self-confident and emotionally open woman walks into his life by chance and seems to offer the promise of salvation, immediately eroding his self-erected and inviolable ‘codes’ from the very first encounter.
The casting is crucial here ( everything I am writing about here is based on the film – I have not read the book ), and I think that the inspired choice of actors by director Sam Taylor Johnson has allowed her to slyly subvert the story a little bit, as she herself has said, with her own more feminist agenda and take the story to a more nuanced and complex level than it might have been if the film had been treated more crassly and exploitatively. I am not saying that this is a great film by any means: the dialogue is poorly conceived; the whole comes across as one dimensional, the music is obvious and ticked by the box, but it still all kind of works in a contemporary kind of way. There is a consistency of tone and sensation in the typically brooding Seattle setting, and I left with a definite and empathetic sensation in my chest of the woman’s bruised, but brutally awakened, sensuality (even love).
In terms of gender politics, obviously, the studio had to have a female director on board from day one : had they not, any charges of misogyny or mistreatment of women due to the nature of the story would have had immediately more resonance, no matter how sensitive the director had tried to be. The male gaze, feasting through the penetrating lens on a woman being tied up and submitting to any form of bondage for the purpose of the male’s sexual satisfaction, would have been way too risky for a big Hollywood movie studio, and thus Universal wisely went with the unusual choice of a female visual artist photographer and only second time director, but still an established figure in the art world who might imbue the essentially crude architecture of the film’s plot with something more palpably romantic and subtle. Many people will laugh at my use of that last word, but as I said, for me, there is a certain sensitivity in this film, the screen and mise en scène bathed in female chemicals that essentially castrate Christian Grey and make him a rather delicate, even pathetic character who, ironically, as I see it, becomes completely emotionally dominated by his far more self-realized and in-charge lover, Anastasia Steele. To me, quite honestly, she is the boss. Oestrogen fills up the impossibly ordered offices and duplex like a perfume, and in fact there is a very noticeable lack of traditionally conceived testosterone on screen, given the thematics, from the immaculately clean and tidy ‘play room’ with its exquisitely organized feathered whips and clean chains (you can practically smell the lemon furniture polish), to Grey’s walk in closet: the suits and shirts and ties and cufflinks laid out obsessive-compulsviely like Sarah Jessica Parker’s wardrobe in Sex And The City. We are not talking, here, about some chained up leather gimp grunting and hurtling towards Anastasia, but rather the curtailed and image conscious metrosexuality of a Milan Men’s fashion show (surely one of the least sexy things on earth, at least to me). The apartment, where much of the ‘action’ takes place, is more like a first class hotel’s extended penthouse suite than our traditional image of a sleek onyx bachelor pad – a flower arrangement, here; an anonymous looking piece of art work placed just so, there, or about the piano, the director seemingly having feminized or at least neutralized this living space in order to render it as unthreatening and attractive as possible to Anastasia, and thus her intended, presumably largely female, audience. Rather than a dark and claustrophobic place where ‘forbidden desires’ would be played out or imposed on the ‘victim’ in an intense, dungeon-like space – which would surely have made the push-pull of attraction and terror far more visceral and troubling, we are made constantly aware, surely intentionally, of glass; of transparency, of light. Rather than a hidden-underground hole – the stench of soiled leather and sweaty, and stale sex, we have a space that looks more like a spanking new (forgive the pun), state-of-the art personal gym, just fitted out with extra, kinkier accoutrements, straight from a high-class, cordon bleu catalogue.
Ironically, I had prepared myself sensorially for what I thought might be a potentially ugly and polluting experience onscreen by scenting myself nicely with recently purchased Weil’s Antilope vintage parfum, thinking, mistakenly, that it would be like a protecting veil of sanctity and good taste that I could harbour myself in if I hated the film for whatever reason. In reality, however, as it turned out, in terms of smell I was something of a disaster. I was planning to stay in that day, feeling a little under the weather, but had decided at the very last minute to go and see the film as originally intended and had thus showered very quickly, thrown on an old t shirt and two sweaters (unwashed, to my horrified realization as I sat self consciously on the bus on the way there), and worse – or better, depending on your viewpoint – had neglected to put on any deodorant. By the time I got to my seat, overheated and hurried, the Antelope was rutting, my own very real, and collected, odours were rising up terrifyingly around me, while on screen, two smooth, depilated, auspiciously clean individuals clasped and unclasped prettily in their playground of aspirational luxury, not a single bead of sweat in sight on their toned torsos as I lay bathed in it like some filthy quasimodo; Jamie Dornan looking as athletic and unscented as an action man figurine; Dakota Johnson never less than clean-smelling and pure, the bare-bottomed hanky panky ‘audaciously’ frissoned rather than abnormal; the velvet -rope of their tied up sessions softly fit and mutually clearly pleasurable, as it obviously should be.
But back to the supposed polemics and my own, placid, reactions to them. Physically, the actor playing Grey – Jamie Dornan, a former model and piece of man candy if you like that sort of thing – is simply not imposing enough, despite his taut and honed body, to come across as a real threat – even physically – to his new girlfriend, who is of similar height and build and could probably floor him had she done a little taekwando; they are translucent Adam & Eves who extend their bodies and curl their toes affectedly à la music video, yet evince little tangible, genital lust. This Christian Grey, depilated, hawk-eyed, is like a rigid, cold Greek statue waiting to be animated by his more flushed and blood-circulated feminine counterpart and, perhaps because he himself was once a dominee, is never once threatening in his actions. Controlling, yes, selling Anastasia’s car without her permission and tracking her whereabouts and so on (and I realize that this is sinister but er, so what) but he is also incredibly solicitous about her well being at all times, and will never do anything sexually without her absolute, explicit consent. It was all this that surprised me: just how polite and considered everything was in this film, considering the accusations of domestic violence (where surely exactly the opposite usually happens: where a couple sadly meet and holy vows are made; promises of happiness exchanged, only to end up in the cold light of the domestic day with the man turning out to be a violent bastard with no-self control who continually physically abuses his partner and keeps her in intimidation). That there was a contract drawn up that Christian hoped she would sign before committing herself to even an inch of ‘his world’ is disturbing (and something I imagine that most of us would run a mile from), but even when the main character, completely of her free will (because she is falling in love with him), does start some initiation into ‘bondage’ – and, crucially, seems to like it – it is really just so tame, as light as a feather, that all of this surprised me quite deeply in its stripped, officious rationality.
I was led to believe that Fifty Shades Of Grey would be a shocking story of a woman debased and humiliated by a psycho (but so what if it had been, anyway? Must every woman, in every story represent, the entirety of womankind? Are we so politically correct that every female protagonist, in every film, must obey certain conventions of motivation and psychology that fit with the current standards of thought?). In my eyes, though, in any case, it was nothing of the sort. To me, the female character in this film is essentially in control throughout. Dakota Johnson, an actress I have never heard of before, is really good, I think, bringing an intriguing blend of innocence, stability, curiosity, intelligence and intrepidation to the character of Anastasia that allows her to transcend the bullshit around her, and when the S+M in the couple’s incipient relationship does definitively transgress her boundaries she immediately, and rightfully, puts an end to it, the lift doors closing as they part, at the point where the story, at least this part of it, seems to end.
As I said, for me, this girl, for the most part, knows exactly what she is doing. She is also clearly, on the whole, really quite enjoying it. And anyway, she is acting out the fantasies of the woman (not the man), who created her, E.L James, who has admitted to writing Fifty Shades Of Grey in the midst of a mid-life crisis as her personal sexual fantasy. It is mainly women, apparently, who have bought the novel, and it was certainly women who made up the entire audience at the screening I went to ( I was the only male : the rest of the onlookers were young Japanese women munching on popcorn).
Again, this is why I can’t really understand the ‘controversy’ the film has incited, other than the potential, as the Catholic church as suggested, for ‘normalizing’ the sexual practices that are enacted by the couple on screen (but which are nevertheless more natural, surely, than the enforced celibacy, and consequent molestation, of little children that has plagued the church for an eternity), even though they are consensual and ostensibly harmless. What these, the ‘outraged’ seem to be saying is that a woman shouldn’t be allowed to have sexual fantasies other than what is deemed normal (by men, presumably); that she shouldn’t be permitted to explore ‘dangerous’ themes (not even in fiction), that she should just emerge from the kitchen in her pinafore dress and wait modestly in her bedroom for a night of pliant and whispering midnight missionary position, or if she is a married Japanese woman, enact the traditional ‘maguro’, or tuna fish position (trust me, I have several Japanese female friends who have told me about this) and lie there like a dead, rigid, creature squeaking occasionally for her husband’s pleasure when he is not too exhausted from his sadomasochistic work practices to be, taken with her. All of these assumptions about female sexuality, that women are these tame, innocent and bloodless creatures, ultimately strike me as far more objectionably sexist than anything that appears in this movie.
Not that there is anything wrong, obviously, in the more traditional methods of lovemaking. Who am I to discuss what people get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms? I am no sexologist. I do not expect to come back to my parents’ house in the future to discover that the garage has suddenly been turned into a ‘playroom’. In fact, to be honest, in some ways, I probably come from the opposite side of the spectrum to all this. As far as I am concerned, the whole world is way too overly, and deeply boringly, sexualized ( I really do believe that desire originates more often in the unknowable, the intangible, the suggested, than the blatant and in your face animality; that an unspoken, even furtive clandestinity is far more erotic, quite often, than the drawing up a contract of sexual practices to be enacted in an S+M lite dungeon); that despite my desire for the right to sexual freedom, the sex-obsessed ugliness of much of contemporary ‘culture’, from the tedious writhing and ass-tit-slapping of our current pop stars, to the endless debates about the morality of homosexuality, to the froth and bother surrounding this ultimately inconsequential film (and I imagine novel) is ultimately probably damaging to the mystical and soul-releasing beauty that can be sex.
To conclude this first part of my exploration of these two films (and some things I would like to say about Japanese culture that could, and will probably fill a whole book), Fifty Shades Of Grey, despite its definite watchability, is ultimately nothing but a mildly erotic little trifle that could possibly have been ‘more’ (ie. more lurid, more hardcore, more ‘button pressing’ when looked at from some quarters) but which, in my view, also succeeds in carefully dignifying what could have ended up as a vulgarized cipher of a character in the wrong hands and imbuing her with enough verve, life and character to reject, at least this stage of the narrative, the rather pitiful male character who is pursuing her. While story originator EL James succeeds in getting her rocks off in creating her saucy characters (and hats off to her), in the process giving a big middle finger to those who want to put limits on a woman’s sexual fantasies no matter how un-PC, or non-feminist they might appear to be (and is laughing all the way to the bank as she inarguably seems to be tapping, in fact, into exactly what a very large number of women do seem to actually want, at least to read about in fiction), director Sam Taylor Johnson also deserves some kudos, I would say, for the sly and glossy subversion she has carried off with her somewhat neutered, but ultimately, dare I say it, more empowering, even romantic, visual adaptation.
TO BE CONTINUED…..