Actors Jamie Dornan (L) and Dakota Johnson at a fan screening of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images
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More M&Ms than S&M: Fifty Shades of Grey is noxiously sweet – and totally blank

We can’t disparage these actors any more than we can blame a man in a hammerless world for failing to bang a nail into the wall.

Mindful of how E L James’s sadomasochistic love story Fifty Shades of Grey became a hit and then a phenomenon and finally a laughing-stock by word of mouth alone, Universal Pictures decided not to preview the film version to critics more than a few days in advance of its release. The studio wanted to give it to the fans first, which is awfully altruistic of them. Providing, that is, that the movie didn’t transpire to be the insult to cinema that the book is to literature. Whether it is a philosophical disquisition on baby oil (“From makeup remover to soothing balm for a spanked ass, who would have thought it was such a versatile liquid”) or the unerring eye for evocative detail (“The Mac laptop… has a very large screen”), nothing done in the book with crops and whips is half as painful as the humiliations visited upon the English language.

The achingly dramatic Fifty Shades of Grey trailer

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film version is neither as bad as it could have been nor as good as it needs to be. The source of the book’s wretchedness was its interior monologue (“Sitting beside me, he gently pulls my sweatpants down. Up and down like a whores’ drawers, my subconscious remarks bitterly”). So it was wise to announce visually the abandonment of that first-person perspective. The film begins with a shot that the book’s narrator, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), could not have witnessed: the billionaire businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) preparing for his morning run. He then heads to his office where Anastasia, a student, arrives to interview him for a magazine. His answers are laced with feeble innuendoes. “I exercise control over all things… I enjoy various physical pursuits… My tastes are very ‘singular’.” The Monty Python pervert played by Eric Idle (“nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more”) starts to resemble a character of Strindbergian complexity.

Each clue Christian gives Anastasia as they begin to spend time with one another is converted by her into a romantic challenge. He tells her he is bad, the wrong man for her, and she can only wonder at the enormity of his heart. The movie attempts a similarly self-defeating transformation. For all its bondage trappings, this is a noxiously sweet love story, more M&Ms than S&M. The camera strives for jeopardy and unease in its shots of Anastasia surrendering to Christian’s sexual demands. The soundtrack, dominated by slow-burning ballads with a disco pulse, tells a more reassuring story. The effect is similar to a “Danger! Keep Out!” sign daubed in smiley faces, or the “Not!” disclaimer made famous by Wayne’s World.

It is hard to know what is at stake in Fifty Shades of Grey. The grammar of its sex scenes is rudimentary and orthodox. A bead of sweat or a clinch not shot in immaculately-lit silhouette or a foot that didn’t arch in pleasure would be far more transgressive than anything kept in Christian’s pain room. Nudity is biased toward the female participant as usual. Even this movie would not countenance the cliché of sex on a shagpile carpet before a roaring fire, but it mints its own clichés. Christian always plays the piano after sex – it’s his equivalent of the post-coital cigarette. (Fans of the film may start to feel exhausted now whenever they hear a Steinway.) And though Anastasia’s choice description of enjoying her “very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle” is gone, she is shown nibbling the end of one of his company pencils. I only wish I’d read more Freud so that I could work out what was going on here.

The question of whether Johnson and Dornan are any good is impossible to answer. Theirs are not tactically blank performances of the sort given by, say, Keanu Reeves in The Matrix or Nina Hoss in Yella. They simply have no material to work with. His single character trait is that he has a dark secret. Hers is that she wants to know what it is. (She’ll have to wait for the sequels like everyone else.) We can’t disparage these actors any more than we can blame a man in a hammerless world for failing to bang a nail into the wall.

The movie isn’t exactly bad – merely empty. If you want unembarrassed frankness about sadomasochism, watch Barbet Schroeder’s splendidly nonplussed 1975 film Maitresse starring a loutish young Gerard Depardieu. If you want humour on the same subject, give Adam & the Ants’ “A Whip in My Valise” a spin for its daft rhymes (“I paid a packet/ For a new straitjacket”) and cheerful refrain (“Who taught you to torture?/ Who taught ’cha?”). And if you want a psychologically complex portrait of the hazards of falling in love with a damaged man, try this scene from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure:

Pee Wee: “There’s a lotta things about me you don’t know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn’t understand. Things you couldn’t understand. Things you shouldn’t understand.”

Dottie: “I don’t understand.”

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle