Dissecting 'Fifty Shades Freed' and Its Problematic Climax
Eisner-nominated comic book scribe Alex de Campi and THR contributor Simon Abrams look at why the film is an interesting — and even frustrating — failure.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Fifty Shades Freed.]
The following conversation about Fifty Shades Freed, this weekend's undisputed box-office champion, comprises electronic correspondence between The Hollywood Reporter contributor Simon Abrams and comics writer Alex de Campi. In this thread, you will find some mild spoilers. We highly recommend that you see the film before reading this exchange, but that's more of a suggestion than an order. We are, after all, not your mom.
Simon Abrams, Shogun Assassin: The Fifty Shades franchise has made big bank this box office, despite often being critically dismissed as a series of unsexy, moronic and overwrought "chick flicks." This assessment is not wholly inaccurate, but it is unproductively harsh. I confess that I still think E.L. James' prose in Fifty Shades of Grey is rather amateurish. Still, the courtship of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a kind of sadomasochistic Henry Higgins, by Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), his Pollyanna-ish Eliza Doolittle, was originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction. So I tend to think James' editors deserve some blame for its original, uh, roughness.
Still, my larger point being: Just how seriously should we take the Fifty Shades films? These movies are unusual in that they are, like the Twilight films before them, so popular that they've become the new business model. The Fifty Shades films are also, despite often defined by erotic thriller tropes and cliches, uncommon because of their preoccupation with female sexuality. It would accordingly be too easy to outright dismiss Fifty Shades Freed because of its creators' imaginative and technical shortcomings.
I read two compelling articles about Fifty Shades Freed before seeing it for myself. Both informed the way I saw — and struggled with my enjoyment — of the film. The first one can be found at Fandor, and it's by Justine Peres-Smith. She writes, "[Fifty Shades of Grey] represents the first steps toward the future of what femme-friendly erotic cinema can be," adding that the first adaptation "is the only [R-rated] film in the [box-office opening weekend] top 10 that is explicitly about sex, and the only one with a female lead. Based on a wildly successful book series of the same name, it is the most successful erotic franchise in film history."
I was compelled by what Peres-Smith identified as a female-gaze-centric appeal. "The movies feature soft-core sex and nudity, which is often edited to a steamy pop hit. But what sets these scenes apart from other films that dramatize sex is that while they increasingly focus on Grey’s desire to 'dominate,' they also focus on Ana’s pleasure, not as a reward for male desire, but as a central theme of the film."
Time's Stephanie Zacharek goes further: "Movie nudity is so rare today that it makes what Dakota Johnson does, in all three Fifty Shades movies, that much more remarkable. She takes Anastasia seriously while retaining a sense of humor about herself. In a scene where Grey’s tongue follows the length of Anastasia’s leg, from ankle to wherever, Anastasia gives in to the moment, her neck arched in glorious silhouette. Johnson has a sense of Anastasia not just as part of a pristinely arranged tableau but also as a sensualist, with all the attendant nerve endings and complex emotions that that implies."
Zacharek adds that Fifty Shades is a welcome respite to the generally juvenile treatment of sex in popular films. "Today’s sex scenes, and the semi-nudity they feature, are rarely languorous or sensual. Instead, sex is generally presented as something best rushed through, Energizer Bunny–style, to limit the risk of embarrassment or remorse, or even the possibility of actual pleasure. In real life and in the best movies, a woman’s naked body has an innate elegance; it looks less dignified when it’s obscured by lingerie or a low-cut top, as we so often see in movies today. "
With these two articles in mind: I wanted to discuss with you the effectiveness and other issues of Fifty Shades Freed. Just so our readers know: You just penned a new weekly miniseries called Twisted Romance for Image Comics; its first issue is in stores this week. You've also written a fair amount of erotica, and are easily one of my favorite people to talk about movies with.
So, Alex: How did the film work for you? I know you and I both cringed at the male-gaze-centric perspective during the sex scenes, just as we both kinda tuned out during the thriller portion of the film. Still, what did you think of Fifty Shades Freed?
Alex de Campi, Lone Wolf and Cub: Let me state up front that my only qualifications for reviewing this film are that I am a woman, supposedly its target audience, and I've written a whole lot of porn. (Erotica, if we're trying to be classy.) I'm also the survivor of an abusive relationship. I wanted this film to be great. Women deserve better films and films from the female gaze that celebrate sexual attraction. If done well — and I know this from my own writing work — it really lands with the male audience, too, who can't quite figure out why the story feels new and fresh all of a sudden.
Yet, alas. If you recall, we ended the film with me giving two middle fingers to the credits screen (in the empty theater) and yelling, "Fuck you, terrible movie!" — so that pretty much sums it up. First, the good: Dakota Johnson. Boy was I surprised by her. She was genuine, she was in the moment and her performance was delightful. I was surprised how great she was: completely believable as the reader self-insert character, the slightly heavier-than-Hollywood usual (so, a size 8) every-girl heroine.
Now, the bad. For a movie that makes such a big deal about being erotic, the sex is both boring and filmed perfunctorily at best. Every sex scene, there's two seconds of foreplay, and then it's Jamie Dornan, humping gamely away and desperately wishing he was somewhere, anywhere, but there. Look. Shooting a sex scene is just like shooting a fight scene. You have to choreograph it and block it. It has to have some sort of twist to it. But every sex scene but one in this godawful film is just a complete A to B straight line (that is, Tab A into Slot B), ending with penetrative sex, because that is apparently the only thing two people can do in bed. (Or elsewhere.)
As for the emotional arc of the film, which is the most important thing in romance/erotic romance: It ends up not having the courage of its convictions. Thus we wrestle with this also incredibly tacked-on thriller plot, where all the suspense cards are pretty much dropped in your lap as soon as it's introduced (we find out the baddie's identity — Mr. Hyde, the names in this film are a gift — and his motivation almost immediately). Because of this, there is no actual, credible resolution of the issue that Christian Grey is an abusive man-child who doesn't need to be tamed, he needs to be slapped. Repeatedly.
The first half-hour of the movie is The Abuser's Playbook: Hook a woman by lovebombing her, then gradually isolate her from her friends (when she is reunited with them they are all his friends/family) and train her via denying her freedom and affection to obey his commands. It's also full of a married couple having hilarious conversations about things any normal couple would have done before getting married: Do they want kids? Will she change her name? And so forth, to the point where Anna really should have heeded some advice given to a more successful celluloid Anna: "You can't marry someone you've just met!"
You can see the movie's bad fan-fic roots, also, in what it pushes as the end goal for a woman: marriage and kids, preferably to someone wealthy. Who cares if he's emotionally abusive! I want films for women, but boy howdy, I do not want films for women that perpetuate the incredibly toxic "goal" of meeting a bad boy, fixing him and then marrying him. Psst, girls, you can't fix 'em. Christian's ultimate emotional turnaround is so rushed and unearned as to be unbelievable, and the final cut of Anna sitting in the sex room awaiting her master, to her and him lounging on the lawn of their estate with Baby #1 as a toddler and her pregnant with Baby #2 was laughable.
My last problem with the film is probably the biggest underlying issue with the entire production: It's still shot from the male gaze. We see Johnson's body more frequently naked than Dornan's, and filmed much more... appreciatively. The director and crew clearly fell back on the only thing they knew how to do: eroticize the female body, and then have Dornan with his shirt off. All of this is also undercut by Dornan, who clearly doesn't want to be there, and cinematography that occasionally rises to the dizzying heights of "9 p.m. CW show."
They don't know how to film Dornan. Aside from being able to shoot him with a female (or gay male) gaze, they try to show the character's masculinity and power... by shooting him from a low angle, so he's high in frame compared to her. The problem is, Dornan has a heavy chin, and it is just the most unflattering angle ever created. They're using fairly short lenses, too, and the result is just painful. Never shoot a lady from beneath!
Oh, and the soundtrack is overly loud and invasive. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, it was a fine motion picture.
Abrams: Lee Harvey, I'm intrigued by your comments about foreplay and the general flatness of 50 Shades Freed's bad sex scenes. For me, the film lives and dies by how compelling its attempts at either normalizing or just giving its audience an interesting alternative to the usual male gaze-y rom-coms. So the sex scenes are crucial, he said as he held back very mature giggling.
You're dead-on about the need for better choreography. There are two gratuitous ass shots in the film. I don't say "gratuitous" in a pejorative sense, that's just what we're talking about. It also hasten to note that one of the asses in question belongs to Dornan.
Still, I have never seen two more consistently botched ass shots. You'd think it wouldn't be hard to hire people who know how to worship or at least properly objectify at least one of the film's two appealing leads. But then, the film ends with an unflattering low-angle shot of Johnson presenting herself to Dornan's character. Maybe this shot isn't meant to appeal to me, but shouldn't I at least be able to theoretically understand how something like this could be sexy? The damn thing is smashed against marble tile! It's not flattering!
Where was I? Right, the sex scenes' weird clash of wanting to appeal to both men and women, and often failing to go far enough to satisfy either. There are a couple of scenes where I could imagine the teasing appeal of shots where Johnson and Dornan's bodies are both effectively used as sites of sexy spectacle. Like the bit in the car park where she unzips him. Or the way they film Johnson's thighs squirming when he punishes her with a vibrator for disobeying him too many times.
But in many scenes, the sight of Johnson's breasts didn't feel like the filmmakers' way of celebrating Steele's unabashed sexuality so much as their defiant insistence on a sexist double standard at the heart of the film: It's a woman's vision of (a neutered version of) sadomasochism that's re-interpreted mostly by men. I mean, director James Foley (Fear, The Corruptor) does a workman-like job here most of the time. And most of Fifty Shades Freed's flaws are built into the script since it is beholden to James's source material. But at some point, I wanted to see a film that convincingly sold sex scenes to women. Because, as you said, if it's appealing to the target audience, hey, it might be attractive outside the target audience.
Unfortunately, there are two teasing lines that neatly — and may be even self-consciously — explain how the film's predominantly male-gaze-centric sex scenes don't do enough. These lines are perfect in that they also sum up my frustration with the film. The first come at the end of the above-mentioned punishment scene, set in Grey's red-leather-lined "Playroom" sex dungeon. This room appears to have cowhide tiles on the floor.
Anyway, he's edging her, and she can't stand it since this sex act is apparently malicious. You couldn't tell from the way the scene is shot, though, despite the loud hints dropped by Danny Elfman's bombastic score. This should be a scene that, if done right, makes you feel as frustrated as Steele does. Unfortunately, it's cut so fast that it never gave me time to determine if I agreed with the mood that the filmmakers were trying to set. The sequence tellingly ends with Grey chastising Anna by saying something like, "You keep promising me one thing and then refuse to deliver."
That's kind of how I felt when, after Johnson is sparingly shown trailing a spoon of rapidly melting ice cream on Dornan's inner thigh, they don't even show a flash of Lil Dornan in the second scene, which features the film's second most eerily accurate self-own. Look, I ostensibly get why that shower scene ends where it does. But hearing Dornan pout "I can't do this" just before we see Johnson cupping his junk? Boooo!
I mean, Fifty Shades Freed is not so execrable that I'd try to dismiss its right to exist, or damn it by harping on its weak dialogue or plot twists. I do, however, think it's an interesting — and even frustrating — failure, though, when you judge it as a potentially trend-setting baby step forward for mainstream pop culture. That's why I brought up Zacharek's and Peres-Smith's articles: They made me want to see the film they saw by encouraging me to expect more, or perhaps just try to look at the film with different standards. It still didn't meet my expectations, but I'm glad that writers like Zacharek and Peres-Smith are trying to change the conversation about the film from "Is it bad at basic stuff that doesn't really matter" to "Is it bad at what it's going to be remembered for?" I think you and I agree that 50 Shades Freed is a failure on both levels. But that's different than only double-deucing the film, and letting that gesture be the entirety of your statement.
So, my next question for you is: What did you think of the film's marriage subplot? I'm eager to hear you say more about the film's clashing ideas about sex and marriage. As obnoxious as this sounds, I gotta know: What do you think this movie is saying about what constitutes a normal adult relationship?
De Campi: Obviously the film is tied to some very second-rate, yet extremely successful, source material. So the filmmakers have to contend with not being able to make large changes in the plot and pacing due to fear of alienating what is seen as a very loyal reader base. Thus, Fifty Shades Freed cold-opens with the marriage of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele (A gift! Every name!). Cue what seems like 20 minutes of excruciatingly dull Sex and the City-style Smug Happy Rich Couple. She has great clothes! They go all over Europe! A friend of mine traditionally gets epically stoned and watches these films on opening night. I can imagine Keith, when they cut to the bit on the yacht, collapsing in his seat in a fit of giggles, snorting, “They’re on a boat!”. There’s nothing. Remember what I said before about scenes having to have a point? There’s none. It’s just, look, they’re rich and happy. The precious opening moments of a film where you sell the audience on the characters’ appeal are completely wasted here. Again, the shackles of the source material, but still. It’s like you came to see a movie and instead are seeing a 20-minute perfume commercial.
I have no idea why these people are married. They’ve clearly never had an actual conversation about their relationship. I really hate this insistence of marriage as the gold ring, the green light, the ultimate sign of success for a woman in a relationship. The film prioritizes marriage over a healthy relationship (which they clearly don’t have) and that is some evil, evil shit right there. Anna is well-portrayed as a plucky lass who doesn’t stand for shit, but still.
Marriage is not a Band-Aid; it will not heal a bad relationship. For all its kink, Fifty Shades hews back to its roots as Twilight fan fic, and Twilight (written by a Mormon woman) is, at heart, an incredibly conservative story where the end goal is marriage and babies.
Once again, the film does not credibly resolve its emotional arcs, it just plops down these conservative cultural signposts of feminine “success”: She convinces him that babies are a good idea! I mean, the film literally ends with her in a floral pregnancy dress, having cured her emotionally abusive husband of his habits. This is not realistic or healthy, in any way. Yet it’s being presented as a goal to female viewers.
Abrams: I can't lie, I was kinda fascinated by the "they're rich and happy" part of the film. Fifty Shades Freed is, at heart, an escapist fantasy whose ideas about sex and romance are more than a little strange. Sex is presented as a key part of this young couple's shared life together. But it's part of a certain bobo dream lifestyle, complete with private plane, luxury car and penthouse apartment. During the screening, I joked with you that this was "Crate & Barrel porn" because that's really the landscape that Steele and Grey's horniness is part of. This isn't life as we know it, but a vision of what the film's ideal viewers might want. Which is also why I think Fifty Shades Freed's imaginative debt to Sex and the City isn't so small. Look at her boat, isn't it great? Wouldn't you think her collection's complete, etc.?
You can also see a little Sex and the City influence in the way Steele interacts with her friends and co-workers. She worries about keeping her last name at her day job, so Grey naturally picks up on that fear and confirms it: You can't have a traditional marriage but be an independent woman, too! There's also that quaint girls-day-out scene where they all sip white wine and try on dresses. One pokes her head out of the changing room and gasps that she needs help with a stuck zipper. It's very harmlessly air-headed, but it does tell you a lot about this film and its ideas about what women want.
What I'm trying to say is: I'm not surprised that sex is presented sparingly here. It's presented as the (meager) sizzle on the steak rather than the actual meat of the thing. And that sucks, because I do think Fifty Shades Freed and this franchise is interesting for what it will set up. Maybe it is the future. Isn't that interesting/scary?
Before we sign off, I wanted to ask you: What comes after Fifty Shades Freed, do you think? It is a trendsetter, a status that I wish Mad Max: Fury Road and Music and Lyrics enjoyed. After Friday's screening, you told me there would probably be more fan-fic adaptations, but have there been any real contenders for that top spot since James' books came out? Adapting another pre-existing low-maintenance series seems like the safest bet, but I have no idea what that would look like. And would it have to be set in, or cursorily invested in, a sexy subculture like these films are? I tend to doubt the next big thing will be another S&M-themed romance series, but what do I know? Is this even a thing we can predict? What do you want to talk about? I'm boring.
De Campi: A large part of fan fic is sex. Erotic. But so frequently the way it's presented is about friends navigating attraction to each other, or people growing to become friends and there's something more. In any case, the sex, while incredibly important and a primary attraction to many readers, is actually secondary to themes such as comfort, understanding and friendship, all of which were absent from this film. Of course, fan fic ranges across a massive, massive spectrum from straight-up tentacle porn fics through alternate universes (They're in high school! They're in Medieval England! They're in space! And, of course, the beloved coffee-shop AU — they're in a coffee shop!) to fics where there is no sex at all. It's a place for the people that pop culture does not ever put in hero roles to have a voice in fiction. And it's wonderful and good. But this is the key: It's #OwnVoices. And this film was not. It was a clumsy attempt by a bunch of men to make a film that could chase that magic pink dollar.
I do think that over time, we'll see more small films about love and friendship, and that are more erotic. In some ways, save for the sex part, Lady Bird is a wonderful example of the film that is stepping in to provide the female voice and the female gaze. It's the Gen-rated, High School AU of Fifty Shades, but with the better ending: She becomes her own person. It took EL James, a woman, to write this phenomenally successful book, and I think it'll take the rising, new generation of female filmmakers and queer filmmakers to really bring a proper, erotic female gaze to men. It will happen. And I don't know where it'll come from: a scrubbed fic; a romance novel; a spec. But it will happen.