Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie version of E.L. James's S&M romance novel, opens in theatres this weekend. In France, 12-year-olds will be able to see it. Jean-François Mary, president of the country's classification board, said that the movie wasn't likely to shock many people, calling it "a romance, you could even say schmaltzy." His words were passed around this week as a joke about the French, but from my colder, North American point of view, he's right.
Please don't mistake this for posturing: I'm not saying you're a prude for not having a "red room of pain" in your apartment. I'm saying there isn't much pain in Fifty Shades, which is a conventional romance at heart. Jamie Dornan's Christian Grey is handsome, rich and sensitive, a Tiger Beat pin-up about as threatening as an anthropomorphic bug. He buys his girlfriend a car and introduces himself to her parents. He holds her hair while she vomits, and knows her body better than she does; after he deflowers her, he gets up to play shirtless piano. What does he see in Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), with her clompy boots and dowdy cardigan? We don't know, but if he sees it in her, he could see it in us, too.
Rough sex is the catch. It's more of a plot device than a theme: Christian is perfect, but he likes to hurt women in the bedroom. (Not from any natural predilection, make no mistake, but because of childhood abuse.) He talks a big game about dominance and submission, though, truth be told, he seems more than happy to do it vanilla; the sadism thing comes up in the sorts of lovers' spats people have just to remind themselves how much they like each other. He restrains Anastasia, sure; then he runs a peacock feather along her flank, goes down on her, and plays more piano, this time in a V-neck.
Fifty Shades doesn't break any ground in the mainstreaming of BDSM. Of course it doesn't – that ground was broken literal ages ago. The biggest taboos here are a reference to anal fisting (in the context of "absolutely not") and Anastasia's bush (which is one of the movie's best details). The saga is way more Pamela than Story of O, and Pamela was way more depraved.
Not that it matters. James's novel became a "thing" on the strength of its suggestiveness, not its content. And that "thing" sells the movie, which I really enjoyed – largely because everyone else in the theatre enjoyed it, even those who thought it was dumb. The spectacle had a midnight-movie feel, from the trivia questions ("Is anyone embarrassed to know that?" said a woman a few seats over, regarding Anastasia's term for Christian's dungeon), down to the reporters soliciting audience reactions outside the cinema (one grandmother described the sex as "namby-pamby" to Newstalk 1010's Justine Lewkowicz). I heard people breathe during the sex scenes, and laugh when Christian announced he was "50 shades of [effed] up."
The whole thing was camp. And, obviously, it was more fun than the book, whose prose was never the attraction. The movie managed to be a little more progressive (relatively speaking: Christian's birth mother is not a "crack whore," as in the novel, but rather a "crack addict, and a prostitute") and less uptight. The book overcompensates for the elephant in the room – Anastasia really doesn't want a D/S relationship – by formalizing her consent through long, tedious contract negotiations; in the film, the meat of this happens at a boardroom table. Anastasia wears an elegant plum gown. Sushi is served.
Fifty Shades of Grey is not about extremity; it's about the air of the illicit, which makes everyone feel as though they're in on something, even if that something is nothing. It's like marijuana in that sense: Most people I know smoke at least occasionally (or have opted not to because weed is basically contrast dye for everything they're doing wrong). Still, the fact that it's technically not allowed makes it feel special, something to share with a co-worker, say, that you'd otherwise have nothing in common with. It signifies, in a cheesy and safe but sort of touching way, that you're not really so uptight.
Going to see Fifty Shades of Grey, out of enthusiasm or irony, makes the same sweet and totally unremarkable point: You're interested in sex beyond the mechanical workings thereof. That goes for the prudish and the jaded alike, and it's a nice bond to share with randoms in a theatre.