One is a fantasy; the other is a nightmare. They both revolve around abusive men.
When I got an invitation for two from Universal to see an advanced screening of Fifty Shades Freed, I have to admit, I scoffed a little. But my boyfriend, who was looking over my shoulder, expressed interest in going. “It’ll be fun!,” he said, having never read the books nor seen a single frame of the films. I hadn’t read E.L James’ novels, but I had watched the first 20 minutes of Fifty Shades of Grey while procrastinating writing a paper in my second year of college. As it turns out, I was so grossed out by the glossy, shiny film and the sociopath/billionaire Christian Grey, that I stopped watching and wrote my paper instead. But I should know better than to be so dismissive of a franchise that’s made almost a billion dollars at the box office (and Fifty Shades Freed has only just opened!).
Like or not, The Fifty Shades of Grey franchise has tapped into something deeply pressing in today’s culture. As we’ve seen this year especially, people’s sexual preferences play into a larger narrative of power and abuse. Sex and how you get it isn’t arbitrary. Yes, the films (mostly the second and third in the installment) watered down and falsified the complexity of the Zeitgeist. Lines like, “I’m not going to touch you until I have your written consent!” seem like wild misinterpretations of what sex educators mean by ‘affirmative consent.’ In fact, Grey’s demand that she sign an NDA eerily echoes Weinstein’s favorite legal defence mechanism. And Christian fights off predatory behavior with more predatory behavior. After shooing Ana away from her creepy boss, he says: “He wants what’s mine.”
When the books were released, critics were scratching their heads, and sighing at the tireless efforts of feminists. “Is that what women want? To be handcuffed and blindfolded by a stalking billionaire?” Or perhaps, women just wanted an excuse to read soft porn on the subway on their Kindles and not feel embarrassed. But maybe it isn’t as simple as the novels and the films echoing what women ‘really’ want, whether it be undercooked erotica or a dominant man with his private helicopter. Perhaps, Fifty Shades is a banner of our times, displaying the confusing and seemingly contradictory desires of women. And of course, Fifty Shades isn’t the only film to be taping into it.
There have been lots of comparisons made on Twitter between Fifty Shades Freed and Phantom Thread. Before it’s release, Anderson’s film was even being labeled as ‘an art-house Fifty Shades of Grey.’ Upon consideration, the comparisons are fairly obvious. Reynolds Woodcock is a successful dress-maker, who invites Alma to be his muse. He is used to getting his way (and getting his silence at breakfast), and women are used to playing second-fiddle to him. We never see a sex scene in Phantom Thread, but the dom/sub dynamic is certainly hinted at.
I would suggest another parallel film. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was a poorly written film, that missed the opportunity to fully explore the relationship between Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem’s characters. Ignoring Aronofsky’s self-imposed allegory of global warming, the film should be taken at face value: mother! is about a selfish, struggling artist and his supportive wife and the chaos that ensues. He wants fame, but also wants love. And Fifty Shades Freed is about a wealthy, tormented billionaire who’s into BDSM and the tug of war between his love for his partner and his need to dominate her. He wants to dominate her, but he’s submissive to her love.
Though Dakota Johnson plays Anastasia Steele more for laughs than for naivety, she can’t completely avoid the innocence written into her character. Same goes for Mother. Lawrence’s performance is unusual for her. She’s not the smart, independent and vocal woman we’re used to seeing her play in the Hunger Games series or in David O. Russel’s films. She’s soft, quiet and unequivocally devoted to her husband. These traits are what enable these women to keep saying yes. Part of the frustration of watching a film like Fifty Shades of Grey is knowing that, in keeping with BDSM rules, the submissive is the one who’s supposed to have all the power, not the dominant. Only in the sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey and in the last third of mother! do we begin to see verbal and physical defiance. But unlike in the first film in the franchise, any trace of a three-dimensional woman is written out of her. Ana isn’t even that awkward anymore. She’s just boring.
Lawrence spends the bulk of the first half of the film expressing her grievances and her concerns to her husband, none of which are met with any serious consideration. Same goes for Ana. Every time she brings up an issue with Christian, it either leads them to the playroom or another scene. Neither film resolves the marital conflict. Fifty Shades Freed will just ‘cut to,’ having not enough time to spend on a single plot point. Even the sex feels rushed. That’s not to say, however, that both films depict conflict in the same way. Fifty Shades Freed ends with an absurdly idyllic image of Christian stroking Ana’s pregnant belly, as they sit on the lawn of their new, multi-million dollar home. Unless this is a literal dream or Christian has undergone some intense therapy, there is little indication that Christian has changed his ways. And that’s the same cyclical message that drives the ending of mother! Lawrence is just a wife among wives, willing to give her heart to a man who will only use it to further his selfish desires.
In both films, the main couple is isolated from the outside world. They don’t have real friends or any real opinions about the world around them. The driving force of their relationship is the husband’s preoccupation with his art and the wife’s suffering at the hands of it. While as Bardem’s character is going through writer’s block, Christian Grey’s art of domination in the playroom is practiced throughout the film. The floodgates are open, and they’re not closing anytime soon. It’s just a pity that the sex scenes in the last two movies are so bland. There’s no lead-up. In the first film, Taylor-Johnson took her time, dwelling on the tools and the toys, and was showed a keen interest in showing a progression in the sex scenes (and even made a point of always depicting safe sex, which is sadly an exception for a Hollywood film). Though Ana and Christian don’t live in a house in the remote countryside, they are isolated from the rest of the world partly by his extreme, unexplained wealth. All of the relationships are purely to causal to the plot. Neither Ana nor Mother are permitted any kind of friendship or connection that doesn’t revolve or eventually lead back to their husband, the creator.
If mother! focuses on the frustrations of an artist, then it never actually shows us the product of his supposed genius. Lawrence reads the poem, but not aloud. In turn, Fifty Shades is more interested in how the dominance in the bedroom seeps into their relationship. Both films are about artists but are wholly uninterested in the art itself. Fifty Shades wants to seduce us with the glam and glitz, and mother! wants us to recycle.