02/17/2015 01:38 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2015

'Fifty Shades' and the Art of Seeing

The art of seeing is to see things fresh and clear, pristine, unclouded by the baggage of memory and preconceptions. That is a difficult task any time a book is made into a movie: the memory of the images formed from the printed page are almost impossible to erase when viewing the same story on the big screen; and this often results in a sense of discordance when the two images don't coincide. But when a film is not only transplanted from a book, but represents the embodiment of a cultural phenomenon, it is doubly difficult to see the film for what it actually is. Such is the case with Fifty Shades of Grey.

As an exercise in the art of seeing, therefore, Fifty Shades makes excellent fodder, and it was with that intention that I went to see the film. Would it be possible to see it fresh and clear, as if one had never been exposed to any of the publicity, never even heard of the book, much less read it? That was my aim when I saw the film on its opening day.

Ninety percent of the movie consists of scenes with just the two main characters, played by Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. Johnson, as Anastasia Steele, is charming, sweet, innocent and endearing, and the movie revolves around her emotional as well as her sexual awakening. Dornan, as Christian Grey, is not quite equal to the part, but how could he be? Grey is a fantasy figure, impossibly wealthy, good looking, and smart. Dornan gives a fairly credible imitation of Grey, which is probably all that could reasonably be asked of most actors. (Maybe Clark Gable, or a young Marlon Brando, could have done a fully convincing job.)

The sex scenes are plentiful and somewhat explicit, with breasts and buttocks on full display. All the accouterments of bondage, however, are mainly an adornment, not much more than a sex toy or two. Anastasia's sexual awakening at the hands of Grey was proceeding at full speed, well before the dominant-submissive theme was introduced. The blindfold, ropes, and flagellation were somewhat superfluous, even though accompanied by overtly religious music toward the end of the film.

Fifty Shades is fundamentally a love story, one in which both characters are discovering as much about themselves as one another. Anastasia undergoes a real transformation, from awkward innocent ingénue, to a somewhat self-realized woman, in growing awareness and possession of all her faculties. Christian Grey is less interesting, more two-dimensional, a man whose development consists more of meeting his limitations, rather than transcending them. Together, the two characters are not really able by themselves to sustain the weight of a two-hour movie, although Dakota Johnson almost succeeds in pulling it off. Towards the end of the movie, we just hope there will be no more sex scenes, and that some resolution of the emotional drama will be forthcoming soon.

Where Fifty Shades generates a somewhat greater level of interest lies in the tension between the modern ethos of female emancipation and the thoroughly submissive sexual role Anastasia is asked to accept. The film runs the risk of making this contradiction so acute as to lose all credibility, but Anastasia displays just sufficient reluctance so that her eventual submission becomes somewhat plausible. The paradox is underscored, however, by the fact that she actively enjoys the submissive role and finds erotic pleasure in it.

This, then, is what makes it difficult to master the art of seeing when viewing this film. The challenge is to face one's own preconceptions about the nature of femininity, about equal rights for women, about the respective roles of men and women in society. Does Fifty Shades present us with a primal truth about women's secret desire to be thoroughly dominated, manipulated, reduced to an object of sheer masculine lust? If so, is it subversive of hard-won gender equality? In short, what does this film say or suggest about modern conventional wisdom regarding the emancipation of women?

These are issues each viewer must decide for herself. As a technical matter, the film's direction by Sam (Samantha) Taylor-Johnson is competent; the acting is uneven but sufficient for the purpose; the script is unmemorable; the plot, in many respects, presents the standard themes of romance. Without its implicit assault upon a contemporary feminist ethos, Fifty Shades is a B+ movie at best, and no worse than most movie fare. What makes it worth seeing, or not, has little to do with images of kinky sex, and everything to do with what the film asks or suggests about the fundamental psychology of a woman.