In an attempt to escape my daily analysis of global foreign policy I turned to another global phenomenon: watching "Fifty Shades of Grey." Instead of going to the opera in the heart of Berlin, the city where I live, I ended up seeing hearts broken on the cinema screen. It was a combination of curiosity and research that shaped my idea to see the movie. I wanted to see what kinds of people were drawn to watch it and I wanted get a personal impression of what "Fifty Shades of Grey" is really about.
But before we get to that: the run up in actually going to the cinema deserves a little paragraph of its own. I emailed a friend about it -- just the simple idea to see a movie -- and the immediate response was: "Very good! Which movie should we see?" I wrote back: "Fifty Shades of Grey." The next immediate reply was: "You've got to be kidding me." To which I answered: "Nope, this is serious. I need to do research so that I can write about it. Also, I'd like to bribe you with a Persian dinner if you join." And the final note was: "I'll absolutely gladly read what you write about, but there isn't a single chance I'll be watching this movie." It's probably worth to mention at this point that this friend of mine is a guy -- just in case you haven't figured that already out through the conversation.
So I did go to the cinema all by myself and learned unsurprisingly that the audience was almost entirely female. Following the storyline it becomes obvious why the target audience is indeed female. And it reveals what the challenges are with this story. It's not that "Fifty Shades of Grey" is a bad movie -- on the contrary. On a variety of levels it is actually quite excellent. Both main characters Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan perform in a profound way. Sam Taylor-Johnson deserves an award for staging this movie so elegantly and dignified, including the explicit sex scenes. And last but not least the soundtrack is delicious beyond words.
So what's the problem then? The problem with the movie is the same one with the books. Firstly, that the story isn't about what people think it is: it's not about S&M sex -- in fact not about sexuality in general -- and it's not about romance, love and relationships either. It is about a woman who falls in love with a man who can't love -- not himself, not anyone else and certainly not this particular woman although he tries. Secondly, it carries a dangerous message: two people who in theory shouldn't be together can make it work. The gliding scene portrays this danger best: Christian and Anastasia seem the closest in that moment and Christian is indeed trying to give more -- just as Anastasia wants him to -- and they glide smoothly with so much joy and dedication, but metaphorically interpreted the glider doesn't provide a safety net and though Christian, entirely capable of handling a glider, can't handle emotions. As a viewer you might get the impression this particular scene between the two signals a shift -- closeness, commitment, romance, but ironically the song underlying the glider scene is titled "One Last Night" and hints towards what is coming. A different kind of shift. Their relationship deteriorates -- heavily.
It would be okay if the story of "Fifty Shades of Grey signaled two people who can't work it out as a couple can still enjoy each other in whatever way they choose that pleases them, but the dangerous moral lesson is polar opposite: you can change this person that you've fallen in love with. Which is tragic because it undermines another way of reading this love story: a beautiful and bright minded young woman embodies unique strongness. Without any experience -- in life or love -- she instantly draws her own consequences -- only to be drawn back to her relationship with Christian Grey in the second and third book. With my critique of Ana and Christian's love story I don't want to discourage people -- mostly women of course -- from watching the movie. By all means, everyone should stream to cinemas, as "Fifty Shades of Grey" is good entertainment and eagerly anticipate sequels in the following years. But what needs to be kept in mind: reality doesn't work like that.