The lyrics to the Gang of Four song “Contract” (from their seminal post-punk album “Entertainment!”), set to brittle guitar chords and thrashing drums, explored the distance between the bedroom and the boardroom. Singer Jon King addressed a lover who “dreamed of scenes / like you read of in magazines,” only to find frustration, as disillusion set in with the chorus: “Is this really the way it is? Or a contract in our mutual interest?”

Cut to the middle of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s much-anticipated adaptation of author E.L. James’ over-100-million-copies-sold novel, a crass cross-pollination of the Harlequin romance genre with top-shelf sadomasochistic porn. We see awkward, ditzy college student (and virgin) Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) sitting across from an impossibly wealthy businessman Christian Grey as they discuss the terms of her agreement to submit to his sexual enslavement — a contract in their mutual interest.

Jamie Dornan’s Christian is all ripped abs, simmering yet vacant glower and limitless expense account. How he — ludicrously, the son of a “crack whore” — got rich is not even mentioned, because the only thing that’s important is that he is. Anastasia, so seduced by the power and confidence that comes with wealth (versus the presumed worthlessness and student-loan debt of her literature degree) willingly submits to kinky practices that she doesn’t really enjoy, though she draws a line at the most extreme acts, thankfully preserving the film’s R rating.

Fifty Shades of Grey
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson
Run Time 125 minutes
Language English
Opens Now showing

Much of the discussion around this film has been about how much sex a Hollywood movie can get away with (answer: not much), or whether the depiction of bondage and discipline in a mainstream movie is progress toward sexual freedom or regression toward a creepy male-dominated view of submissive women.

Toss all that: The real perversion here is, as Gang of Four hinted, that the logic of late capitalism has commodified everything, with “exchange value usurping human dignity,” as author Kevin J.H. Dettmar put it in his incisive essay on “Entertainment!” This is 21st-century bad romance twisted by cost-benefit analysis, where the rules are spelled out in dense legalese. It’s front and center in “Fifty Shades,” but not just here: Think of Justin Bieber, whose toadies force any young women joining his entourage for an evening to sign a similar non disclosure agreement, or American universities’ well-meaning but Orwellian attempts to make students sign sexual-consent contracts before hooking up.

Anastasia eventually inks her submission agreement with Christian and on some level this is not a relationship between two people, this is capitalism: not only does it bend you over and strip you of your dignity, you willingly sign off on it, in the vain hope that one day you may have some agency to dictate the terms. When money is God, submit to the blows of its invisible hand.

As for the idea that this flick might be a racy date movie, I’d say Gang of Four had it right: “the same again / another disappointment.”

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