Fifty Shades of Grey is not a sexy film. Structurally, Anastasia Steele’s (Dakota Johnson) coming to terms with her lover’s sexual difference is closer to The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992) than the no-holds-barred erotica that audiences might have come to expect from E.L. James’ salacious paperback. Naturally, this won’t matter to the novel’s most rabid fans. The outrage that flares up in tandem with most adaptations of populist best-sellers is nearly always identical: word-of-mouth obsesses over which parts of the novel have or haven’t been adapted into the movie, and director Sam Taylor-Johnson is sure to fall afoul of similar tests.1 And this, unsurprisingly, quashes most debate of how she’s actually performed as a director: specifically, of how the movie’s scenes have been adapted using an expressive vocabulary that is uniquely cinematic.
In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey is often drab. It moves in swings and roundabouts. There is one scene where the two leads use a moodily-lit board room to negotiate how far and over which of Ana’s appendages Christian’s (Jamie Dornan) rights as a dominant may extend. Their conversation uses the matter-of-fact tone of a business meeting to explore a beginner’s glossary of sado-masochism, placing a welcome clamp on the movie’s maudlin register as though the scene was guest-directed by Luis Buñuel. It ends up being the best part of the movie. Taylor-Johnson, meanwhile, dedicates only 20 minutes or so to those sex scenes proper, and a large part of these are reactive glances from Johnson’s peeping eyes, or close-ups of navels being delicately stroked. Power-ballads by Sia or Beyoncé do a lot of the heavy lifting. These scenes are restrained and vanilla, reaching for a sensuality that’s never quite there. They end up being the least interesting part of the movie.
Of course, this is indicative of Taylor-Johnson’s approach to developing a relatively tasteful relationship drama out of mass-market smut. This is also testament to how many different movies the novel could’ve been churned into under different directors and their visions – especially as the director’s seat was once a coveted place to sit. Gus Van Sant, in particular, was so keen to helm the film he infamously sent Universal Studios an unsolicited test shoot of a key sex scene. That scene is yet-unreleased to the public, but I’d put money on it being an evocative retelling of the transgression that Fifty Shades’s narrative abounds with; like all of Van Sant’s sex scenes, it would’ve been far less concerned with what it was showing than how it was showing it. To that end, Gus Van Sant wasn’t just denied a box office-magnet with which to rekindle his career; his audience was denied a far more interesting and likely superior movie.
If pornography wants to objectify the body by abstracting it from its identity, then Gus Van Sant subverts sex scenes by using them as illustrative proxies for his characters’ troubled subjectivities – leering gazes be damned. And although these tendencies more or less stalled at the same time as his mainstream breakthrough, circa 1997’s Good Will Hunting, they’re still a hallmark of his early, arguably defining work.2
Mala Noche is the director’s poetic debut feature, shot on grainy a black-and-white film stock that tends to draw stark contrasts out of its shadowy Portland settings. It looks like early Jim Jarmusch by way of Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977). Thematically, it’s a distillation of the pet themes of Van Sant’s early indie catalogue; Walt (Tim Streeter) is a Middle American layabout dealing with unrequited and cross-racial or inter-class desire – in this case with Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a teasing but possibly straight Mexican drifter. Johnny is also homophobic and “doesn’t sleep with queers” – he often refers to Walt in the Spanish equivalent for terms of endearment like “stupid faggot” – so Walt settles for sleeping with Johnny’s friend, Roberto (Ray Monge).
“Mala noche,” Walt’s drawling voice-over intones the morning after his first night with Roberto, the film’s rough aesthetic and wandering camerawork tease out details of Walt’s bad night. A suggestively long and silent pan from Walt to a dormant Roberto is a sure enough intimation of the former’s gaze. But each shot thereafter is brief and obscure, communicating through an economy of suggestions and gestures. Van Sant shoots body parts as close-up, amorphous pools of light moving in and out of pitch-black shadow. You’d barely notice that the two actors seldom share the frame. And these essentially unromantic shooting techniques, in sidestepping watching either character in pleasure, mirrors the perfunctory, itch-scratched nature of a fling over which money will later swap hands.
In her genre-defining essay on new queer cinema, B Ruby Rich wrote that, “Mala Noche announced how tame gay representations had been and suggested the potential of the medium to capture life as lived, off-screen, if only filmmakers would dare.” This is the new queer cinema’s remit in a nutshell, and as one of the movement’s harbingers, Mala Noche explored a breed of homosexuality that was neither strictly positive nor negative, but true – a reaction against the overly courtly and tasteful earlier representations of queers. These sex scenes likewise express a discontentment with neutral representation. By injecting them with his own tendencies as an auteur, Van Sant essentially reclaims the image as his own. I’d vouch that even the smuttiest material could benefit from a technique as confident and boldly expressive.
Alternatively, one of the main criticisms against Fifty Shades is that it doesn’t involve nearly enough sex – a charge that was never laid to Van Sant’s sophomore picture, Drugstore Cowboy (1989). The movie opens with a bird’s eye close-up of Matt Dillon’s Bob on a pillow, staring sedately upwards at what might be a lover. In fact, he’s lying on an ambulance stretcher; the perfect bait-and-switch to introduce a relationship drama about two people for whom love and the thrill of looting pharmaceutical meds becomes hopelessly converged. The movie boasts some of Van Sant’s finest work, and high among its greatest achievements is convincing you, nevertheless, of Bob and Dianne’s (Kelly Lynch) romance, even in the absence of intimate moments. The chase to get on basically subsumes them all. “What do you want me to hold you for?” Bob asks through grinding teeth. Part of the movie’s success lies in how subtly its director aligns the audience his characters’ junkie otherness. He construes non-addicts as pedantic thespians, or otherwise makes them seem unknowingly, incurably boring. What results is another tender and eloquent portrayal of his characters’ psyches, so deftly handled as to make drug logic sound remotely normal.
Put simply, one might say that a proclivity for tastes that are “very singular” has been a defining feature of Gus Van Sant’s collection of peripatetic outsiders, whose sex scenes are often sites of transgression. For me, these ideas reached their most eloquent union in My Own Private Idaho (1991), Van Sant’s second foray into queer identity crises. The film reinvents Mala Noche’s cross-class romance in the story of two young hustlers, Mike and Scott, a defenceless gay narcoleptic and a rebellious heterosexual scion to his mayor father’s fortune, respectively. The movie starts out establishing its Portland setting by thumbing through the city’s iconography: chimney orange sunsets and bitumen road over rolling hills, as interspersed with close-ups of Mike’s ecstatic face as he receives head from a man 20 years or so his senior. That this sequence is alternately literally and metaphorically showing Mike’s headspace becomes clear soon enough: the character climaxes, and we see a ramshackle house inexplicably fall to the earth, its wooden planks splintering across bitumen.3 But the point is that Van Sant treats the fact of Mike’s prostitution with the very nonchalance he takes to it. It’s subsumed by his pleasure.
The movie that follows is a melange of styles. Scott’s tense relationship with his father cribs Shakespeare. The variously perverse and absurdist fetishes of Mike’s clients are avenues for pronouncing the character’s indifference and his nonconformity. Yet the movie’s most drastic divergence from realism comes in two hyper-stylised sex scenes, presented in real-time but with characters almost perfectly still, the occasional rising chest or quivering frame betraying the sequences’ photographic stillness. The intention is to disrupt temporal continuity so as to deny the viewer indulgence in these moments: like Van Sant’s hustlers, these scenes deal in the statuesque and picture-perfect imagery of sex, but never its intimacy or, in this case, movement.
But mostly, they’re interesting for compressing Mike’s unrequited longing for Scott into a few clinical moments, as both Mike and his audience are denied interaction. And a lack of willingness to psychoanalyse its lead as she transgresses similar boundaries is Fifty Shades’ biggest fault to a tee, really. The film is not overtly misogynistic given Ana’s consent to BDSM is always keenly sought by Christian, but its resistance in detailing how or what Ana is feeling only pushes it closer to being another conservative narrative in which a woman has to readjust her standards in order to match her man’s.
That’s a storyline, sure, but it doesn’t have to be so closely mimicked by the director’s approach. Ana’s character is often muted. Why wouldn’t she question a self-made billionaire personally filling out a shopping list of cable ties, rope and no fewer than two rolls of gaffe tape? How can an actress dodge accusations of a poor performance when so much of the script consigns her to idly chewing pencils and scenery? Perhaps E.L. James’s prose is patently terrible, but it never comes up short on placing you right in the smutty thick of what she’s thinking. A few pages from Van Sant’s book could enliven the movie’s sex scenes a hell of a lot, and even manage to do so without jeopardising the movie’s rating. Instead, we get a purported sex drama overly committed to exploring the broken past of its Don Draper cookie-cutting, but barely the bat of an eyelid towards why a girl as social, good-looking and intelligent as Ana might still be a virgin at 21.