“The camera loves him almost as much as you do,” Anastasia’s best friend says when checking out a newspaper photograph of the mysterious Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey. As the male love object in this Hollywood version of the bestselling E.L. James potboiler, Jamie Dornan’s Grey is meant to arouse forbidden fantasies. By day, he’s a telecommunications billionaire, in private he’s a kinky sadist who seduces lit major Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) with the line: “I don’t make love, I fuck. Hard.”
Anastasia Steele’s blank-faced response (clearly she’s unrelated to Rocco Steele) keeps the movie from being campy Dorian Gray fun. Yuppie-ish Dornan looks like a young Colin Firth with a puckish smile. He has horizontal dimples above his upper lip but also scars on his chest, suggesting danger. Or vulnerability, despite his take-charge demeanor. If the book excited mostly female heterosexual readers by suggesting S&M exploits as Valentine’s Day kink, this bland film barely transfers that naughtiness.
Ironically, the movie (with its sneak-peek of male pubic hair) fails to supply crossover sex appeal. Despite a sliding scale of masculine pulchritude via Grey’s alter-egos (Max Martini as his rough-scruff chauffeur, Victor Rasuk as a young Latino photographer, Dylan Neal as a middle-aged suitor), the film hews to dullard Anastasia’s moronic naiveté about sex. Grey’s masculinity makes her nervous, yet she’s not fully aroused physically or mentally. Johnson’s made-up resemblance to long-tressed French actresses Nathalie Baye and especially Charlotte Gainsbourg only reminds you of more sexually frank European movies (like Bertolucci’s groundbreaking Last Tango in Paris).
Out readers may recall that Lars Von Trier’s half-comic Nymphomaniac satirized sex, romance and obsession—showing the difference between them. For Von Trier, “I fuck. Hard,” is a punchline. Rascally Von Trier satirized the decadence that the Fifty Shades book phenomenon represented. Its popularity even found its way into such recent mainstream gay porn as Titan’s The Dom and The Sub two-parter—every bit as much a franchise as Fifty Shades.
Honest pornography has it all over Hollywood soft-core that is dishonest about the connections between sex and emotion. The right cocksure audacity has frequently turned hetero Hollywood movies into founts of gay fantasy: It’s how Brad Pitt, Jason Statham, Henry Cavill, Chris Evans, Tyrese Gibson, and (do I have to mention him?) Ryan Gosling became favorite computer screen-savers. That’s what happens when a filmmaker’s camera loves its love object.
So it’s disappointing—almost an artistic failure—that Fifty Shades’ female director Sam Taylor-Johnson doesn’t sufficiently eroticize Grey. He’s an abstract notion of the wounded Alpha male—clearly based on that infamous 2000 Esquire magazine cover photo by Platon Antoniou of Bill Clinton manspreading as if Lewinsky-posing for all of America. (“We have a great internship program,” Grey propositions Anastasia.)
But sexual politics are not Taylor-Johnson’s forte. When formerly known as Sam Taylor-Wood, she directed the 2010 Nowhere Boy, a good biography of John Lennon’s youth in which her camera clearly loved actor Aaron Johnson’s impudent pout, red lips, and nervy eyes. She followed that film with an REM music video "Uberlin" featuring little more than Johnson, erotically-charged, swaggering down a London street. (They married in 2012.)
There’s no erotic charge to Fifty Shades, a dull start to a franchise dealing with contemporary sexuality—and kind of a cheat for a movie whose closeted protagonist admits: “No one in my family knows about this part of me.” Even its straight-to-gay crossover potential becomes a betrayal.