As the Fifty Shades film trilogy hangs up its paddle and rides off into the sunset on its inexplicable pommelhorse, one is tempted to draw some conclusions about what it gave us, as a culture. What struck me from the first film — an adaptation of a wildly popular alternate-universe Twilight fanfiction series that attempts to be as in-depth a depiction of the BDSM lifestyle as Rihanna’s “S&M” — was not its fetish for ropes and cuffs, but for jets and real estate. Money has always been the cushion for Fifty Shades’ spicier provocations, and it’s the aspect of the series that has aged the worst in the three years. Since E.L. James’s books originally made their splash, we as a culture took our sweet time realizing that most billionaires are more interested in deporting immigrants than sweeping young assistants off their feet, and we have become more suspicious of the powerful boss/naïve intern dynamic that fuels so much of the film’s sexual intrigue. Not that anyone is or should be looking at these films with such a stern eye, I’m just saying that they look more out of step with the times than ever. As the trilogy goes out, more desperate than ever to convince us it was in on the joke all along, it’s hard to say exactly what the joke was.
I have a guess, and the series capper Fifty Shades Freed bears it out: This is a trilogy about a charming, intelligent young woman with just the right amount of self-awareness and sense of humor about herself, who happens to have a twisted kink for monogamy with the most boring man in the world. It might be one of the most cathartic depictions of modern romance currently in business. Women (and men, but mostly women) flock to the theaters so they can cackle at the woeful predicament of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, still endlessly game) a woman who by all appearances has her head screwed on right and yet still keeps coming back to the affluent void that is Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, still asleep at the wheel). Even those who have never come within a mile of a butt plug can see at least some version of themselves onscreen.
In Freed, they’ve gone and gotten themselves hitched, because that is the greatest expression of romance these films can envision, complete with a Paris honeymoon and a basic-bitch sterling silver Eiffel Tower charm bracelet gifted over the Seine. But after a break-in at Grey Enterprises cuts their trip off early, Ana begins to bristle under Christian’s obsessive, possessive control over her, even at the title of “Mrs. Grey.” (She keeps her maiden name at her job and in her work email, which irks Christian and leads to Dornan’s best line reading: “I tried emailing you? It bounced.”) Meanwhile, it turns out that Ana’s old boss Hyde is back for revenge after Christian stole his girlfriend and bought his company.
Luckily, the film is happy to forget this feint of a plot for long stretches, and instead structures itself around a handful of lavish vacations and sex scenes. If there’s one legacy I hope other films pick up from this series, it’s that it treats its sex scenes the way the Fast and Furious franchise treats car chases, set pieces to be gushed about while exiting the theater. The protagonists have a new arsenal of props, both in and out of the bedroom, including at one point, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s; you are here to see which one is whipped out next and how. (Unfortunately, the most important prop of all is never whipped out, continuing this franchise’s vast misunderstanding of what this particular audience wants. I could write whole other thousands of words about how much more interesting politically and culturally and power-dynamic-wise these movies would be just with the addition of male frontal nudity, but I suppose that’s asking for too much. Oh, well.)
The film assumes that what we want to see is Ana find her inner dom, and top Christian in one way or another, and it plays around with this notion in a few first-act bits where Ana takes the driver’s seat in Christian’s souped-up Audi, and intimidates a hot architect who is a little too touchy with her husband. Of course, the real revelation is that Ana has as big a boner for money as Christian does, and these expressions of “dominance” are just asset management. At the publishing house she works at, and which Christian bought, she is promoted to fiction editor, a job that comes with a big exposed-brick office and lots of responsibility (“Increase the font size by two points,” she commands an underling, with a satisfied smirk). Refreshingly, her desire for more power in her marriage and in her career, as ridiculously as it plays out onscreen, is not mirrored in the bedroom/playroom — Ana is a sub through and through, and the film is better at recognizing that she can be both those things at once than it is with its weird child-trauma diagnosis of Christian’s dominance.
Ana worries that she only got the position because her husband owns the company, but Christian assures her that she got it with “hard work and talent” and she is happy to believe him. Later in the film, Christian has an “it could have been me” moment about a fellow group-home kid who didn’t turn out as good (?) as Christian did. Now it’s Ana’s turn to reassure him: “You were given great advantages,” she tells him. “But look what you did with them!” By the end of Freed, Christian and Ana are no longer a rich man and his middle-class girlfriend, but two rich people telling the tale of how and why they got rich to each other. Doesn’t get more deviant than that.