Culture

Autoerotic for the People: Angelina Jolie Flirts with Directing Fifty Shades of Grey

Angelina Jolie/Photo © Cinemafestival/Shutterstock
Angelina Jolie/Photo © Cinemafestival/Shutterstock

Okay, uncle. We are now officially powerless to resist the call to join the cultural campfire huddled around the soft-core literary phenomenon of the new Millennium that is Fifty Shades of Grey. There is simply no turning away from the ineluctable allure of a cinematic tryst between the two most potent mass-market erotic icons of pop culture: Angelina Jolie and E. L. James' gazillion-selling series of socially sanctioned one-handed reads. Even though the actress has yet to confirm any interest in directing the adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, the mere rumor that she was considering taking on the, er, dominant role behind the camera is such an obvious fairy-tale marriage, it almost seems destined, if manufactured.

Because Jolie and Fifty Shades of Grey inhabit a very similar space in the popular consciousness -- each representing the pasteurized version of transgressive sensuality -- it's almost as if this apocryphal rumor has sprung from the very active fantasy lives of its core readership. And while we would be shocked if Jolie would ever follow such a telegraphed course of action in her career, there is something intriguing about the prospect of watching how a woman as at ease in her sexual identity as Jolie might frame a story about the unaccountable nature of desire.

We already know what the alternative would look like. There is a handful of male filmmakers who have emerged as Hollywood's designated hitters routinely called upon whenever a project with literary erotic undertones arises. First at bat would be Adrian Lyne, the godfather of high-gloss big-screen titillation. Lyne was first introduced to mainstream moviegoers with "Nine 1/2 Weeks," the mid-'80s paragon of popcorn erotic cinema, in which a woman is drawn into an ill-advised affair with a shady character (played by Mickey Rourke at his seedy best) with a seemingly endless collection of expensive suits and animal sexuality that brings an element of danger into the bedroom. In the years since, Lyne has continued to serve up beautifully empty two-dimensional takes on transgressive sexuality in sexually charged thrillers like "Fatal Attraction" and "Indecent Proposal" and an underwhelming, more stylized than scandalous adaptation of Lolita

Philip Kaufman would also be included among the usual suspects called in for the lineup of cinematic sensualists. He first established his interest in the intersection of literature and libido with his 1988 adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which examines the ways in which a group of Prague intellectuals and artists use sex as an escape hatch from the real and imagined oppressors in their lives. With Henry & June, Kaufman then turned his lens on the torrid affair between high priest and priestess of erotic fiction: Henry Miller and Anais Nin. He completed his trilogy of literary libertines with Quills, which captured an intimate portrait of history's most perverted wordsmith, the Marquis de Sade.

There is nothing cheap or tawdry about Lyne and Kaufman's view of sexuality. Taken together, though, their films offer a bloodless view of sexuality as a beautifully lit transaction between two sweaty people, one of whom is inevitably smuggling an agenda or dark compulsion into the proceedings. We'd like to see something a little more nuanced and tentative and scary and thrilling in a film about desire at the edge of darkness.

The bottom line is that the female audience driving the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey might not accept the same flavor of stage-directed sensuality these two directors have been dishing up for years. And the power of the crowd might be our last best hope for a big, sexy film shot from a female point of view. Still, Angelina Jolie is not be first on our list to direct Fifty Shades of Grey; that slot belongs to Lisa Cholodenko, whose "High Art" and "Laurel Canyon" convey the slow burn of sexual tension in ways more visceral and raw than has ever been captured on film before or since. But the mere mention of her name in association with this project is an encouraging sign that Hollywood is wise to the fact that this project is crying out for a woman's touch.

What are your thoughts about Jolie taking the helm of Fifty Shades of Grey? Which living director do you feel is best suited to bring E. L. James' series to life on the big screen?