It’s not the best example of romance, and it’s not the best film ever made, but it’s important that we try to understand its appeal.
When the release date for the Fifty Shades of Grey film was announced, I extracted a promise from my husband that we would see it together. I called in all the film favours he owed me — from having to sit through Transformers 2, Prometheus, and The Hobbit trilogy, for example — and as he knew this film is based on a popular book, he was generally curious to see what it was all about.
Let me say that the audience makes a huge difference when watching Fifty Shades. The first time I saw it was with the Valentine’s Day crowd, a few days after it premiered in Australia. There was a lot of tittering, giggling, and throat clearing. If I had to guess, I’d say most of the women had read the books, or at least knew enough about them to know they wanted to see the film.
Last night, I saw the film towards the end of its theatrical run. Surprisingly, the cinema was just under half-full (admittedly, we were in one of the smallest auditoriums), and most in the audience were either couples or just men.
I have to say that the second time around the film was less joy-making for me. What this tells me is that it probably won’t stand the test of time. But I also didn’t feel as intensely about Jamie Dornan’s terrible portrayal of Christian Grey. Every cloud has a sparkly grey lining. I still found the romance entertaining — I just wasn’t that passionate about it this time around.
This audience tittered less, but they also reacted less. There were fewer laughs, even at the funniest lines. (I mean, I thought they were funny.) There weren’t even disbelieving laughs at the worst lines. When Christian says, ‘Laters, baby,’ and no one laughs, it kind of feels like no one else is getting this film. I mean, how was I supposed to enjoy myself in this kind of environment?
The popcorn helped. And watching my husband’s face during the film was pretty interesting. Getting the side-eye from him during some of the worst dialogue was fairly amusing.
One of the elements of the film that I needed his help with was the music. I was hoping to get some insight on Christian based on his choice of piano pieces. I’m told they were really very sad, despondent pieces — in keeping, I think, with Ana’s comment about the types of pieces Christian likes to play. I also misinterpreted the post-coital-new-coital piano scene for a wink at Pretty Woman, when it seems more likely an homage to Je Te Mangerais, a French film featuring a lesbian couple in a D/s relationship (by all accounts better portrayed than in Fifty Shades, but I’ll go ahead and take a wild stab and say it doesn’t have a romantic ending). Even the concert piano is a Fazoli, which is the same type of piano that Christian plays. The trailer for the film is below (NSFW), and features the Adagio we hear in Fifty Shades.
But the most interesting part of the night for me was our conversation afterwards. My husband and I had a…let’s say passionate debate on the ideas and themes in the film. I will say again that Dornan’s performance in the film does such a huge disservice to readers, because the lack of nuance he brings to Christian Grey makes it a lot more challenging to have an intellectual debate about romance tropes and how not widely acceptable they are to general audiences.
For example, while exploring the concept of the billionaire hero, and how domineering and (arguably) abusive Christian was in using his wealth to (arguably) coerce Ana into a relationship she wasn’t entirely comfortable with, Sleepless In Seattle came up as a comparison. Because Tom Hanks’s character is portrayed much more sympathetically, and without the stigma of BDSM, many don’t realise how truly cruel he was to Meg Ryan’s character — that his empire basically cannibalised not just her business and her community, but the one tangible connection she still had with her late mother.
Correction: Folks on Twitter rightly pointed out that I confused this film with You’ve Got Mail, which is the film about the bookshop chain owner vs the independent bookseller. Mea culpa. I do have things to say about these films. First, they’re both romantic comedies, and there’s an interesting conversation to be had around how romance has to be made palatable to film audiences. Second, despite not being intensely rich, the protagonists in Sleepless In Seattle aren’t exactly struggling, and even the way they achieve their happy ending — by sneaking into the Empire State Building after hours — demostrates the kind of privilege most people wouldn’t have. Again, we give this a pass in a comedy, because hey! Escapism! We know it’s just fiction! Yet we brood over never actually seeing Christian Grey, like, working. Listen, pedants: I don’t care! Let’s talk about what kind of escapism a film gets away with when its value is legitimised by any number of factors, as long as it’s not women who like brooding billionaires with a sexual kink.
We also talked about how romance is presented in film, and the scarcity of films that distill romance in the same way as romance books do — that is, a central romance with a focus on the main couple, with very minor secondary characters and plots. The best we could come up with were basically a lot of French films. This echoes my feeling that Fifty Shades is a Disneyfied French film. What this film could have been with a better actor and a French sensibility! Truly a missed opportunity.
Probably what surprised me most was how defensive I felt about Fifty Shades. For quite a while, my husband was basically using pretty valid and reasonable feminist arguments in his criticism of the film, while I justified the seeming misogyny. What I discovered is that it’s really hard to explain romance to a non-romance reader. (I’m using ‘reader’ here, because I’m really arguing for romance books translated into film, not romantic films, which I think are a distinct genre from romance books. And yes, I realise Fifty Shades is technically a romantic series, but I think it’s close enough given that there are so very few actual examples.) What probably worked best was using examples in superhero fiction, science fiction, and thrillers to illustrate the appalling double standard applied to criticisms of the romance genre.
Interestingly, we had a long conversation about whether or not the relationship between Christian and Ana is consensual. There are valid arguments around Christian’s use of his wealth to skew the power to his side so much than consent is dubious at best. I have two issues with this stance, however. First, it portrays Ana as a victim with no agency; I think Dakota Johnson’s performance contradicts this interpretation. (This might be more of an issue with Book Ana.) Second, it ignores the way wealth is used as a metaphor in romance.
And the latter has been bothering me a lot, especially after this piece by Arthur Chu (worth reading, by the way, if only for being a great example of how one can criticise a problematic piece of popular fiction without necessarily denigrating its readers). Because wealth in romance fiction is more than just class or money or flashy cars and helicopter rides. Wealth can be used to intensify the power imbalance that must ultimately be resolved before the hero and heroine can obtain their happy ending. The billionaire hero represents someone who literally has everything he can ever want (and he usually doesn’t actually want looooove) yet still chooses the heroine — and often chooses to be changed by her. With a wealthy hero, the heroine can say, You have all this money, but what I want most isn’t something you can buy for me. And often, she does walk away from his flashy world, just before he realises how utterly precious she has become and how his world has been irrevocably changed by her for the better…and then he has to do something deeply emotional and against his usual behaviour to prove his love. Finally, wealth serves as a reward for the heroine. It’s not the primary reward — that’s the happy ending — but it’s the icing on the cake. The heroine wins everything. And I think this is important, because in many romances — and certainly in Fifty Shades — it’s the heroine who takes the most emotional risks. Wealth is not essential in a romance, but it symbolises much more than just money. And, I would argue, readers of the genre recognise this.
Anyway, I have now probably said and written more about Fifty Shades than I ever would have anticipated. My final thoughts are these: Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t the book I would have chosen to be the poster child for romance in film. The books and the film are by no means the best we can or should expect, and I cringe at the thought that many will judge romance fiction based on these works. But they are hugely popular, and it’s important to understand their appeal because, clearly, something about these stories has touched its (largely female) audience.
You can read my original review here.