Fifty Shades Freed is not a sexy movie. James Foley’s adaptation of the final installment in E.L. James’s trilogy of novels does have at least four fully realized sex scenes, but that doesn’t make it sexy. That’s not to knock the franchise; what the Fifty Shades movies lack in the mood and atmosphere that stir lustful feelings, they more than make up for with cheese and seemingly intentional shoddy filmmaking and writing that elicits hysterical laughs. The only fantasies Fifty Shades Freed convincingly fulfill are those of boutique publishers who would like to believe that a debut novel can acquire 250,000 preorders and that a local glossy can employ upwards of fifty full-time staffers, both of which occur in this film. And that’s OK.
The film opens with close-ups of a different kind of bondage: marriage. We see hands buttoning the back of a dress, cuff links fastening shut. The imagery here is obvious — and intentionally hilarious. Young lovers Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) make it through the ceremony without using their safe words, and while Anastasia is sitting around at the reception, surveying the guests, Christian approaches her and calls her Mrs. Grey. Of course, she took his name. But with the bondage/wedding visual metaphor and the attention paid to Anastasia taking Christian’s last name, could the filmmakers be layering a critique of the source material’s obsession with marriage-as-happy-ending into this adaptation? Let’s hope.
While Mr. and Mrs. Grey are galavanting around the world, Anastasia is somehow promoted to senior fiction editor at the publishing company that her husband bought in the last film. To make matters weirder, her boss has redecorated her office while she was gone. In what universe does your superior choose for you what pictures and paintings will hang on your office wall? Wait, never mind.
Anastasia’s proclivity for being dominated — in the office, home, bedroom, etc. — seems to stem not from her desires, but just from her utter lack of opinions or thoughts. The greatest contribution she offers to the work meetings that we see comes when she tosses out an order to a designer to increase the type size of a book by two points — a line delivered casually while walking away. (Please, Anastasia! Such a request should have been made in writing, with reasons provided, especially since it increases the page count and therefore the cost of printing!) Otherwise, Anastasia is content to simply sip tea — boy, does she love tea — and daydream about butt plugs. With Christian and others telling her what to feel and do, she is freed from having to think about anything, ever, which is kind of a beautiful fantasy. Being rich helps, too. Even when Christian’s housekeeper asks her questions about how she’d like to add her own personal touches to the decor, Anastasia freezes. God, I wish she would have said, “More Riddick posters.” But Anastasia is the Bartleby of household decisions — she’d prefer not to make any.
Her relinquishing of power in the bedroom, then, doesn’t feel sexy. Sex seems just another chore between her cups of chamomile, one she’d rather not dwell on for too long. And Foley’s direction doesn’t help. We’re not invited to get caught up in this. It’s almost as though he insists we remain distanced voyeurs to the clean and perfect sex on the screen. I had time during the lovemaking to think about those psychological studies where scientists bisected photographs of human faces and then mirrored the halves to create two new impeccably symmetrical faces. When test subjects saw the new photos, they were creeped the fuck out — humanity, like sex, is not meant to be perfect, and our bullshit detectors wail when it is.
Foley also doesn’t allow much room for the audience to get inside of the characters’ heads, to feel what they feel — the most intimate filmmaking a director could accomplish. I’ve seen more sensual shots in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. Even when Anastasia has a nightmare, and we travel into her dreamscape, we’re not seeing the world from her point of view, to get into her psychology of the moment; we’re on the outside, watching her, while her old boss Jack (Eric Johnson) comes up from behind and tries to strangle her, which reads as hilarious, not frightening. Wait, hold on. I should explain: There’s also an attempted kidnapping subplot to this film, because Anastasia — who is marvelously simple and always about one step away from imminent death — is the Tamagotchi pet of princesses, more a possession than a companion, one who must be perpetually protected.
In the previous film, Jack was the old fiction editor at the publishing house, the one let go after he got handsy with Anastasia. (She then got promoted for her, uh, work ethic.) Freed brings Jack back as the kind of madman mastermind you might find on General Hospital. He’s one-dimensionally aaaaaaaaangry! The world done him wrong! And I guess he was in the same orphanage with the young Mr. Grey when they were children? Don’t worry; none of this really matters to the story.
Those seeking out some titillating times would be better satisfied by Googling “feminist porn” and clicking randomly. But if you relish a mindless soap operatic story that leans into the silliness of the genre, Fifty Shades Freed might do the trick.
Fifty Shades Freed
Directed by James Foley
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 9, 2018