Four years and three films later, Fifty Shades is no longer a “phenomenon,” but rather a sputtering franchise that shattered any illusion of being taken seriously after the first film, and now, in its finale, has fully transitioned into male-gaze soft porn. At least 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey, the first adaptation of the book series by E.L. James, was written and directed by women, which imbued the execrable source material with a modicum of feminist verve, even though it was for naught in the face of the story’s crippling view of male-female dynamics. Last year’s Fifty Shades Darker dropped the female voices on the page and behind the camera, as well as any pretense that this franchise was a remotely legitimate outlet of female sexual expression. Now there’s Fifty Shades Freed, which, ironically, closes the lock on the series’ regressive psychosexual mindset and imprisons audience members in a toxic ideological cage where the only breadcrumbs to follow in search of a way out are the episodic mini-conflicts that are introduced and then solved, incessantly, until enough have been enumerated for the film to mercifully end. But the target audience remains caged.
What started as a seedy relationship drama that used sadomasochism to segue into exploration of a damaged soul, however clumsily, is now a soft-focus greatest-hits montage of smiling sexual deviants who turn every mundane activity into a flowery expression of love-and-then-sex. There are no darker implications and certainly no thematic questioning of the thin line between pleasure and abuse, for these characters have now devolved into happy automatons. The central damaging conflict of the original film was very simple: can an abused and abusive man be healed by love? It was solved at the close of the second film: he can, in fact, be healed by love, and then he will ask his savior-love to marry him, whisking her away for a life of unrelenting and unrepentant privilege on yachts and planes and islands. It’s all very clean and healthy, so please continue to try this at home.
Based on that outcome, there is no discernible reason for a third film to exist, a problem writer Niall Leonard and director James Foley work around by turning Fifty Shades Freed into an episodic jukebox musical of frivolity and would-be softcore titillation. There is no central conflict, just a continuing series of mini-kerfuffles: Ana (Dakota Johnson) is flummoxed by how many servants she has at her disposal; Christian (Jamie Dornan) isn’t ready to have babies; the new interior decorator touches Christian’s shoulder one too many times; maybe Christian’s brother (Luke Grimes) is cheating with that sleazy interior decorator; Christian gets pissy when Ana doesn’t immediately change her work email address to reflect her married name. Invariably, these wrinkles are introduced and then ironed out within a five-minute span, concluding in montages of relieved happiness that are scored to insipid modern pop before being punctuated with sex scenes of increasing gratuity. I won’t even touch the film’s third-act diversion into moment-of-truth stalker thriller, which doesn’t make any sense in the context of the film’s other cheerful debauchery, try as the screenplay does to wedge it into relevance. Through it all, bless them, Johnson and Dornan are good actors, and they are good together, since chemistry obviously results when two people are put through a maelstrom of objectification with only one another to lean on…and lay on…and chain themselves to.
To the degree that sex was ever even a conduit to one’s psyche in the Fifty Shades saga, Freed abandons that notion entirely, using sex as merely a constant punchline, completing the series’ shark-jump into pornographic territory. Not that the sex in the film is at all titillating or even remotely risqué; to the contrary, this is about as safe and tidy a fake-sex odyssey as anything you’re likely to find on late-night Cinemax. But that, of course, is now the point: Fifty Shades has gone from a damaging misrepresentation of female sexuality to a flimsy self-parody of mutual sexuality to a feckless explication of male self-pleasure. After all, lurid sexuality has always been a red herring for what really attracted people to these books and films. For women, it’s about what they experience when you take the blindfold off: a relationship with an uber-rich mystery man with countless lavish homes on multiple continents, and the notion that they can heal away the seedier elements of the mystery. For men, it’s about dominance, teaching and taming a dumb-and-willing damsel. Audience reactions are palpable during these screenings: while watching the first film, scenes concluded with galvanized female hollers, but during Fifty Shades Freed, the dominant voices were male, and the most frequent bellow was “Take it off!” The sounds are indicative of a misguided loneliness, and films like this won’t help these people find their path to satisfaction.