By Rich Moreland, September 2012
A blindfolded Anastasia Steele, gagged and strapped to a St. Andrew’s Cross, struggles against her bonds in the opening sequence of Smash Pictures’ Fifty Shades of Grey: A XXX Adaptation. Her voiceover asks, “How did I end up a sex slave?” and answers, “I met my fifty shades.” Two and one-half hours later, a bookend image of Anastasia lingers in the final moments of the film. Once again attached to that cross, she is smiling now, no gag, no blindfold. Anastasia’s voiceover tells us her “inner goddess is happy,” romping through the playroom. Ana is now “the center of attention where she should be,” she says, “where every woman should be.” This story of how a virginal college student becomes a sensuous BDSM lover is a cinematic delight shot in HD by director Jim Powers.
The movie is terrific. Appealing to a female and couples audience, the sexual chemistry between Anastasia (Allie Haze) and Christian Grey (Ryan Driller) intensifies as the film follows his attempts to convince her that his lifestyle should become hers. Their sex scenes are gripping, far surpassing the formulaic action that can be a yawner in today’s porn. Much of their lovemaking, though Christian likes to think of it as ‘hard fucking,’ is missionary and only once does she pleasure him with oral sex. There are no DP’s, no anal (Haze doesn’t do them), no facials, limited close ups of the piston shot, and little acrobatic sex of any variety except in one dungeon scene I’ll get to later. Healthy doses of Christian orally pleasuring Anastasia make Powers’ directing female-friendly. Anastasia orgasms, bodies are sweaty, and there is post-climax cuddling sprinkled with conversation. By the way, early in the film Anastasia’s virginity demands a condom and Christian pulls one out when needed.
Fifty Shades is a romance. Each character tries to get inside the head of the other. He is as frightened of what his past forces him to deal with—no touching, no commitment—as she is fearful of the unexpected. Can Anastasia decide if there is a difference between being a sex slave, a term narrowly defined by BDSM lifestylers (which Christian appears to be), and a submissive? Is Christian Grey, despite his culturally redeeming first name, a sadist?
Lovemaking in the film focuses on her. Christian and Anastasia express an eroticism in their couplings that is not often seen in adult film. When they have sex, it is her experience more than his, at least early on, and the camera celebrates her as a lover, not a gonzo girl. When she ends her virginity, it is given, not taken, and Powers explores this highly complex and impassioned moment every woman faces with a series of scenes. The bathtub one is particularly dynamic. Christian introduces Ana to oral sex; she wants to accommodate his desires. She kneels in the water and the camera captures her look of wonderment and discovery. For a newbie, Anastasia is not shy and quite talented as she ‘learns’ this technique quickly and without hesitation. A porn veteran, Allie Haze must have found playing the scene naively a little difficult. When she gets into her skills the viewer’s imagination is stretched a wee bit to believe she is an oral novice. Nonetheless, Powers’ camera work is superb. There is a mirror at the foot of the tub and Powers frames the action so a rear view of Anastasia compliments her deep throat technique seen close up. It’s a complete picture, showing both sides of the erotic coin; the viewer is drawn into choices between participating and looking. Though the scene is primarily for male viewers, it doesn’t take away the connection Christian and Anastasia have with each other. Powers’ uses the shoots’ lyrical quality to deepen their bonding. It speaks of lovers getting to know each other and experimenting with their intimacy.
In the final sequence of Anastasia’s early education, the silver tie appears. Christian binds her hands. She is willing and allows her “dark knight” to take command of her sexual self-discovery. Ana intuitively knows her ‘training’ is beginning; her eroticism and carnality will be forever molded by his mind and hands. She playfully asks him later when their intimacy deepens, “Are you going to collar me?” He amusingly responds, “Is there somebody who’s been studying?” Yes, and she is succumbing to a sexual entanglement that will define her ecstasy.
Lovers who dabble in bondage for the first time often use neckties. In this movie his tie will restrict her physically while uniting them in love and lifestyle. It celebrates the double meaning of ‘the tie that binds’ and is the central image of the story.Powers’ artistry strikes a glorious intimate moment. Once again, safer sex demands a condom and Christian is prepared. But Ana’s journey will soon accelerate as the sex becomes more sophisticated. Christian introduces the next step to her. He takes a sip of wine and lets the fluid flow out of his mouth into hers as she is bound to the bedpost, her shirt pulled up over her eyes. She cannot see, only feel. The stream is the camera’s focus; it is a concluding statement. In the future, his fluid will flow directly into her, unseen by either of them.
Fifty Shades really has two audiences, the woman/couples friendly one and BDSM lifestylers who will take to this film, though they will encounter a little disappointment. First, the good part: Christian Grey has a dungeon in his home complete with standard BDSM equipment, best illustrated by his variety of whips, floggers and crops, and a four poster bed lovely for bondage and discipline. Despite a ragged start over a botched spanking, Christian eventually convinces Anastasia to familiarize herself with his pleasure room and what ‘play’ means in the lifestyle. The film gradually moves her deeper into the bondage toyshop where the ground rules of BDSM are enforced: safe words, hard limits, consent, and most important, trust. In the best and hottest BDSM scene in the movie, Christian attaches a spreader bar to Anastasia’s ankles and suspends her fully taut. His cropping leaves marks on her. For Ana it’s a turn on, not painful and repulsive like her first spanking, and the stimulus that leads both of them to perform an awkward rear penetration while she is hanging in suspension. This is acrobatic, but not foreign to true lifestylers. Incidentally, Allie Haze knows what submission is. She has shot several times for Kink.com, the fetish porn giant in San Francisco. Her bondage performances in Fifty Shades are genuine and add credibility to the film.
There is a second intensely erotic scene in the dungeon that begins with Anastasia on her knees in a Gorean slave position next to the four-poster. She ends up blindfolded and bound spread-eagled to the bed with Christian’s tongue licking her body. He pipes music into her brain to dull her awareness while heightening her senses. Once again Powers’ veteran directing holds the images beautifully.
My one letdown with the film will be appreciated by the BDSM crowd. Fault finding here is not what the script does, but what it leaves out. In a dream sequence, Anastasia is haunted by images of Leila, one of Christian’s former subs. Glimpses of Leila and Christian playing in the dungeon momentarily flicker through Ana’s mind and across the screen. A flashback here would help drive the story forward and explain Leila’s character. She appears unannounced in parking garage with a bloody bandage on her right wrist and later in Ana’s apartment with a gun. Stalker is written all over her, but everything stops there. What remains is her self-description. “I’m a nobody,” she laments, who is “just alone.”
She tells Anastasia she and Christian just “whipped and fucked.” We never get to see this or to know her. In other words, why include the sensuous Jaslene Jade to play Leila and give her only a few lines of dialogue? She is never seen sexually except for those fleeting dream images and bondage lovers are denied a fabulous scene with Leila’s erotic submissiveness. I suspect her scene with Ryan Driller may have ended up on the cutting room floor due to time considerations. If so, it’s a tragedy. I might add there is brief hint of Christian’s submission to Mrs. Robinson, but it is also passed over and never contributes to our understanding of how his character came to be defined. A few minutes expended to play out this encounter would benefit the storyline. After all, we are like Anastasia. We seek an answer to the question with a double meaning that she asks Christian, “What made you like this?” She wants to understand him, but she also desires to see where she fits into the greater scheme of their relationship. Does she want to appreciate his lifestyle preferences or does she want her sexual personality to be more attuned to his?
Though a porn film, Fifty Shades is more than sex scenes maneuvered around a script, it is about relationships. Penetration is there but as a compliment to the film’s totality, not as a reason for it. Consequently, the sex between Christian and Anastasia is authentic. They sweat, they nestle, they talk; they relate to each other with intimate caresses. Their chemistry wraps around them.They communicate with their mutual gaze, looking inside each other. Incidentally, Christian forewarns her in the lipstick scene that it is not possible for her to see him intimately; a film sequence women will adore because it’s his barriers that eventually collapse.The power of her womanhood will sustain their intimacy; she becomes his partner. Their BDSM lovemaking is her gift to him, not his demand of her. This reality cracks the code that shields his tucked away soul.
The central question we are left with is even more profound. What drives the story, is it the adoration of lovers, or their affection for BDSM as a statement of their connection? If Christian were addicted to the BDSM scene alone he would have stayed with the other subs he put under contract. But with them communication was void and the arrangements short. Anastasia forces him to compromise, as she compromises, accepting sub status in the playroom in exchange for sharing his bed. Throughout the film, there are references to the contract Anastasia never gets around to signing. But there is a contract at the end. Is it negotiated through the BDSM lifestyle and is it sustainable? He accepts that she will play in the dungeon but she is not his submissive nor his slave in the sense the others were. That’s not her style. Can stopping short of total immersion into BDSM accommodate both of them? At one point, Anastasia questions the whole scene with him and asks, referring to Leila’s misery, “What if I end up like Leila, running around stalking the next girl that follows me?” Christian assures her otherwise and she says as the film ends, “We’ve come so far together. We have so far to go.” Perhaps a sequel can explore how far things must go. I’m not convinced the answers are simple and I know Jim Powers doesn’t want me to be.
The beauty of Fifty Shades is within Anastasia Steele. She remains her own person, growing from a girl into a woman. It is the joy of the film. Perhaps from the beginning Christian lured her into his web of bondage and hard sex, but in the end who captures whom, and who owns whom? Listen to Anastasia’s final thoughts as we see her fading image bound to the cross. “We were made for each other . . . my sometimes dominant, my fifty shades.” But what or who is their true master? Love, or BDSM, or a game they play with each other? We are left wanting more . . . .