It’s no secret that Fifty Shades of Grey, the frothy series turned movie trilogy, has its roots in erotic Twilight fan fiction. It’s fitting then, that the final installment of both blockbuster franchises opens with a wedding. The “climax” we’ve been told not to miss, in all those promos and ads, begins in matrimony.
This is actually perfectly in line with a franchise that, for all its kinky hype, and promises of titillation and shocking sex, is really just another conventional tale of hetero romance: A powerful yet damaged man falls for a young ingenue and, through the sheer power of love, she manages to redeem him. Sub in the Red Room for a castle in the woods, and handcuffs and lingerie for talking furniture, and you’ve got Beauty and the Beast.
A quick refresher course on where we stand: Fifty Shades of Grey introduced us to Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the devastatingly handsome 28-year-old billionaire with a secret passion for BDSM, and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), the virginal object of his affections who falls face first into his life while standing in for a friend’s college paper interview. Their whirlwind courtship, punctuated with non-disclosure agreements and Spanking 101, ended in tears as Ana vowed to bid adieu to Christian forever. Forever, of course, lasted only until the sequel, 2017’s Fifty Shades Darker, which, after its fair share of drama and Ben Wa balls, ended with Christian asking Anastasia to be his wife. She, of course, accepted, despite only having known him for what, as far as I can tell, is a couple of months at most. (Questions of timing, logic and reality are the enemy of the Fifty Shades franchise.)
This brings us to said wedding, and the following honeymoon to Paris and the French Riviera, which we speed through in a montage of sightseeing, silk sheets, and impractical footwear for cobblestone streets. Mr. “I don’t do relationships” Grey has finally been tied down.
He’s still Christian Grey though, and marriage hasn’t blunted his constant need for control in all aspects of the relationship, which he exercises in myriad ways: from forbidding Ana to take her bikini top off on a European beach (“Do you want to be ogled?”) to crashing her very first meeting as fiction editor at the Seattle Independent Press because he assumed she would immediately change her professional email address to reflect her married name.
In the books, as in the first two movies, this absurd behavior was framed through a romantic anti-hero lens. But what felt mildly problematic then, now feels like the onscreen embodiment of the reckoning we’re currently navigating around issues of sex and power.
In a way, that’s not the movie’s fault. Freed doesn’t veer astray from the core principles of the franchise, which has always been transactional in tone (there are contracts involved, after all). We’re the ones who have changed. It’s an inevitable side effect of the ongoing #MeToo conversations that — for a while at least – most cultural events and phenomena will be viewed through that prism. Big franchises with mass popular appeal are, to a certain extent, a reflection of our wider cultural context, or at the very least, they provide a glimpse into what Hollywood executives think that context is. And to be honest, that’s what worries me most. Freed has a veneer of wokeness that smacks of an industry used to shirking off responsibility for a toxic culture by referencing their wives and daughters.
The lack of self-awareness makes me wonder if the franchise’s trajectory would have been different had it been steered all the way through by Sam Taylor-Johnson, the female director who was replaced by James Foley after Fifty Shades of Grey. (Rumor has it that Taylor-Johnson was replaced due to major creative differences with E.L. James.) The first movie was by no means perfect, but it did have a kind of playful quality that made the whole college-virgin-shocked-by-kinky-sex thing endearing. And Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, which contained such gems as “I don’t make love. I fuck...hard,” was still miles ahead of Niall Leonard’s — not-so-coincidentally, James’ husband — who replaced her.
What, in a different universe, could have been an opportunity for a major franchise to tackle female desire, written and directed by women, has veered off into yet another tired tale of tortured male psyche soothed by an innocent woman’s touch, neutering any sexy, campy, or even remotely fun impulse. One could argue that the source material is at fault — James’ most steamy scenes are still fairly tame. But in the right hands, a lackluster book can glow up into instant movie classic — just look at the The Devil Wears Prada.
Obviously, the filmmakers had no way of knowing the final film would come out smack dab in the center of Hollywood's sexual awakening. What in 2015 felt like a mildly shocking guilty pleasure now feels irrelevant. I remember spending a great evening with my best friend picking the first film apart over Indian food, even as I secretly filed away certain scenes with a frisson of transgression. Now, the guilt accompanying any pleasure we derive from watching a man control a woman is a little too overwhelming. That’s not to say all bondage is sexist — women are free to choose to derive sexual pleasure in any way that feels good to them, and contrary to popular misconceptions, the dominant isn’t always male. But there’s a power imbalance at work in this particular relationship that makes this all a little hard to swallow.
And as for Johnson and Dornan? Maybe my perception of their chemistry is colored by the rumors of their discord swirling over the past three years. But seriously, for a movie that’s supposed to be the final stroke in some kind of galactic-level movie orgasm, they sure picked the people least likely to make that happen. Three films later, I have yet to be invested in the outcome of this relationship. Still, I found myself rooting for Johnson, who manages to convey a kind of disbelief at her situation throughout the two-hour run time. Right there with you, girl.
What if the studio had taken stock of the public mood and taken a pause to regroup before the final installment, rather than shoot Darker and Freed back-to-back? It’s a difficult step to take, but not unheard of. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo franchise is just now finally getting back on track after an almost 7-year pause between the first installment and its sequel. Of course, that might mean recasting, major delays, and bringing in fresh eyes to come up with a new vision, all of which costs money. But might it not have been worth it for a film that will reach millions of eyeballs and, by extension, hold sway over the image that many women have of what a relationship should look like?
By the end of the film, Ana flashes back to the early moments of her and Christian’s relationship, from the awkward trip in his office that started it all, up to their current state. The idea, I’m assuming, was to propel the audience into a state of nostalgia — look how cute and innocent! Oh, those early days! I have teared up in many a flashback montage, but the only sad thing here was how little I cared at all.
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