Fifty Shades of Grey & the Impotence of Hollywood Sex Scenes

Fifty Shades of Grey is not a good film. However, I’m not here to review it – for that, I advise you head towards Marta Llueca Romera’s article:

Instead, I’d like to talk about one of the biggest problems the film has: the Hollywood sex scene. Despite a fair bit of procrastinating from censorship boards, since the 70s Hollywood and the American public have basically accepted that sex is going to happen in films, and that this is pretty much OK. But this doesn’t mean we’ve got to a good place with regards to sex in films, of course. Mainstream filmmaking generally treats consensual sex in one of two ways : comedic or idealized.

The comedic route is the stuff you find in the American Pie films or Bridesmaids or really anything with this guy in it:

In the comedic mode, sex is actually pretty realistic. People laugh. Things can be a bit… icky. It can get awkward or charming or both. Sure, it’s played for laughs more than emotion usually, but it serves its purpose both as a representation of a side of sex and as a comedic device.

On the other side, we have what I call the SSSs (the Serious Sexy Scenes.) These are idealized, warmly lit scenes usually designed to show that two characters are deeply in love. The camera roves somewhat prudishly around a usually indistinguishable assortment of limbs, with the occasional jump-cuts to fingernails, lips and sometimes a curled toe accompanied by a brief feminine inhalation.

If you hadn’t yet guessed, Fifty Shades of Grey exclusively subscribes to the second method of portraying sex. It’s chock-full of SSSs – in fact, it’s pretty much two hours of them with some absolutely dire dialogue as filler, and this is where we come across the problem: this type of sex scene is deeply, mind-numbingly boring. This type of filming exists in an uncomfortable and uninteresting middle ground; where regulations and a sense of decency prevent it from being explicit enough to be pornography, but a compulsive need to idealize and remove any potentially appealing aspects prevent it from becoming in any way interesting.

What do I mean by this? Well, early on in Fifty Shades, our main ‘character’ – Ana(stasia, of course, not just ‘Ana’) confesses she is a virgin to Christian Grey, and then promptly loses her virginity. This scene could have gone two ways, and both would have been better than the ridiculous middle ground that we ended up in. First option: it could have been an interesting, grounded portrayal of the power dynamic between Ana and this semi-predatory older, experienced man. This would have been easily done by simply making the sex seem a little less perfect. A bit of awkwardness, a bit of pain, some sort of reluctance or confusion, and we would have had an engaging scene.

The second option is to go the other way and accept that this film portrays a fantasy world for the simple purpose of providing socially-acceptable porn. This is not a bad thing – nothing is wrong with humans being aroused by the portrayal of sexual activity. This, too, would have been simple to film: a longer scene, wider, more revealing shots, more focus on mutual pleasure and the presence of an – uhm – ‘climax.’

What we got instead was 30 seconds of confusing shots of random limbs, with a vague pretension towards ‘arty’ filmmaking with the horrible, muted color palette and a final, ridiculous shot in a mirror. The exact same issue plagues the remaining scenes, and there are a lot of them. They’re all short, they’re all rather prudishly shot, and they all sit in that infuriating middle ground where they fail to either entertain, interest or engage, and instead simply bore.

When the film gets to the oh-so-risque BDSM scenes, exactly the same thing happens. We are neither shown the pain and results of the events, which would make for a more interesting, disturbing set of sequences, nor are we allowed to see much of the pleasure of them. Instead, we get that tried-and-tested SSS method, just applied to a slightly unusual variation – slow motion shots of a whip, assorted limb-shots and those familiar cuts to close-ups of lips, fingernails, curled toes and now, ropes, accompanied by the standard brief, sanitized intake of breath which has apparently come to represent all female sexual pleasure in Hollywood filmmaking.

It’s really quite an achievement if you think about it. It’s taken Hollywood 40 years, but Fifty Shades of Grey shows that all their hard work has not been in vain. They’ve successfully managed to make sex boring.

Harry Robertson, Film Features Writer

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