Ah, young love.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” was released Feb. 13, just in time for loving couples to buy tickets and wallow in shared dis­comfort. Thank­fully, the movie’s racy content is utterly unsup­ported by any­thing but a lavish pro­duction budget. The script is often self-serious to the point of comedy. The plot lumbers along like some rare Hol­lywood species of erotic water buffalo, prodded by uncon­vincing char­acters and implau­sible sce­narios.

Both pro­tag­onist and antag­onist, Anas­tasia Steele and Christian Grey, are iso­lated from family and friends. Neither have any sub­stantial history or ties to place (other than a brief and unbe­lievable attempt to give Grey a troubled past). They are stock char­acters, devoid of nuance: Grey is an intense, attractive bil­lionaire playboy giving a speech at Wash­ington State Uni­versity; Steele, the fum­bling and naive Wash­ington State lit­er­ature student who inter­views him.

She is intim­i­dated. He is fas­ci­nated. Grey pro­ceeds to lavish her with gifts, toy with her emo­tions, and track her move­ments with the com­pe­tence of the NSA. He also ini­tiates her into the world of sadism, known broadly as bondage, dom­i­nance, sadism, and masochism, or BDSM. Grey intro­duces Steele to his “playroom” (not made, mind you, by Little Tikes) by slapping her gently on the palm and asking her if it hurt. When she says no, he tells her that pain and her antic­i­pation of the pain is all in her mind: There is nothing they cannot do, nothing they should not do, except what is judged phys­i­cally unde­sirable. Grey and Steele con­di­tionally address each other as bodies, not as persons. This is “play.”

When in “play,” both are sup­posed to be engaging on a physical level only. The meaning of the sex has been nego­tiated and clearly defined beforehand. Safety is pred­i­cated upon proactive, com­pre­hensive def­i­n­ition of the rela­tionship. Both parties agree to acknowledge the precise lim­i­ta­tions of their engagement, both physical and emo­tional. This is “consent.”

This is where the film’s por­trayal becomes prob­lematic: BDSM as a practice relies on clear psy­cho­logical and emo­tional bound­aries. But a major element of the plot is that Grey and Steele are not in a clearly-defined rela­tionship. It is pre­cisely this ambi­guity that keeps Steele open to Grey’s emo­tional manip­u­lation, to being abused even by her own consent.

Steele fails to make the dis­tinction between “play” and reality, and rightly so. The demar­cation between your person and your body, between a role and reality, cannot be drawn as absolutely as it appears to have been drawn in Grey. In BDSM, there is a rela­tionship of trust between the parties engaged before any­thing is under­taken. Sex­u­ality is never merely a game: It is one person addressing another person in their entirety, in their total sig­nif­i­cance. Pleasure and pain are important deter­mining factors in a BDSM rela­tionship, perhaps even primary, but not the only ones. Prac­ti­tioners acknowledge each other as persons first, bodies second.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” ignores this. It con­trives to depict Grey as absolutely physical: he is an appetite, not a person. His morality is that of pleasure and pain, consent and non-consent. Grey, des­perate to be sure of his access to Steele, tells her, “I want you.” He does not mean a desire for her as such, but a desire for the pleasure she offers.

Steele’s involvement with Grey is entirely con­sensual, but it is her inability to reduce herself to appetite, to think and com­mu­nicate only in terms of pleasure and pain, that is her flaw. She fails pre­cisely because she remains whole. This deep con­flict might have been plau­sible were the char­acters given more depth, but Grey and Steele are made out to be little more than com­ple­mentary par­odies of sex­u­ality.

Handled more com­pe­tently, “Fifty Shades of Grey” could have been a tragic spec­tacle. As it is, the film is little more than a visually sump­tuous and intel­lec­tually bankrupt rep­re­sen­tation of modern sex­u­ality, a byproduct of popular culture in turns amusing and sad­dening.