The Banality Of Desire: ‘Fifty Shades Freed’ Can’t Distinguish Sex From Consumption


If you ever watch a few episodes of one of those house-flipping shows, you quickly come to realize that the remods are all pretty similar. Open concept, shiplap, de rigueur subway tile backsplash and maybe a dopey quote etched on something above the hearth. Turns out, the hosts didn’t get to where they are by being wildly creative. That would probably turn some people off, especially the surprise customers who never sought them out. No, where they excel is at creating a consistent, neutral-toned idea of luxury, a house that people with wildly different tastes and backgrounds could all agree to call “nice.” They sell a studiously upscale but thoroughly bland idea of suburban bliss. Anyone could live here. Watching Fifty Shades Freed, you realize that this series is essentially that, but for erotica, like what might happen if you could make shiplap and backsplash f*ck.

The characters are even named “Steele” and “Grey,” so obviously neutral toned that they’re even named after neutral tones. If ever you’re feeling basic, watching Fifty Shades will surely cure you of that, for a while. I felt like I lived on a polyamorous ayahuasca commune compared to the people in this movie, or who it was meant to appeal to. Say what you will about Twilight (and Fifty Shades famously began as Twilight fan fiction), at least Twilight had some pathos. Fifty Shades isn’t bold enough to be trashy. You might be embarrassed for Stephenie Meyer after a particular gushy Twilight passage, but a sex fantasy is supposed to feel slightly embarrassing — a little private, a little naughty. Fifty Shades never feels personal enough to be naughty. It feels like a one-size fits all model home fantasy. It’s just cynical marketing — the banality of desire, animated.

I know there will be ten thinkpieces today wondering why we always trash entertainment aimed at women, but I don’t think that’s my criticism. I don’t begrudge any nice wine moms their titillation in a socially acceptable setting, just because this particular form of titillation isn’t for me. Honest. That’s not why Fifty Shades is so nauseating. Anyway, I’m not sure it’s even about sex (or love, or romance, or feeling safe). The off-putting part is that this movie’s idea of sex is all tied up with consumption. The sex isn’t even sex, really, it’s positioned merely as another facet of your aspirational Crate and Barrel lifestyle brand, to go along with matched china and silk duvet covers.

Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) — Christian who has a penetrating gaze and exceedingly small teeth, Ana who has big doe eyes and that shiny hairstyle designed for continuity — get married in the opening montage. After a money shot of Christian’s private jet, filmed more leeringly than anything involving Christian, and possibly intended as a stand-in for his never-shown dick, there’s another mini-montage of Christian and Ana kissing in exotic French locations. It looks like a commercial for a cruise line, complete with royalty-free R&B soundalike soundtrack. The first real scene sees them on a postcard-ready European beach. Ana wants to go topless and free like the other women all around her, but Christian gets pissed. Is it because he can’t stand the idea of sharing the sight of her naked body with other men (kinda creepy and unhealthy, but at least it’s a sexual thing)? Nope, as Christian later hisses at her from the front of his jetski, he’s worried about “some sicko paparazzo.”

He’s rich, get it? Like fabulously, effortlessly wealthy. In fact that’s basically his defining characteristic, besides the intense and frequently comical earnestness. The crux of almost every scene is “Christian is very rich and he and Ana have a very nice life.”

(The best part of Fifty Shades Freed is when the wealth porn uneasily juxtaposed with the erotica creates incongruous comedy, like intense Christian getting pissed at Ana’s bare breasts and hissing “Let’s go back to the boat” and angrily riding off on a jetski).

Ana likes a house she sees on “the Sound”? Christian buys it as a surprise. Ana misses seeing her friends? Christian whisks them all away on a surprise vacation to his other home in Aspen on his private jet. He even lets her drive one of his 10 grey Audis, the fast one, that the camera ogles in a way it never does its human subjects. In the last movie, Ana had a dick boss, so Christian bought the company and fired him.

Indeed, most of their problems seem to stem from other people being jealous of their nice life. Their main antagonist, for instance is Jack Hyde, the guy Christian fired who tried to sabotage Christian’s helicopter at the end of the last movie. Despite the sexual harassment and helicopter chicanery, Jack has come back (which I don’t begrudge because, again, the occasional silly soap opera elements of Fifty Shades are the only thing interesting about it). Is it because A-Steez is just that sexy and smart and Jack can’t live without her and the jealousy is killing him? Nope, mostly he’s jealous of Christian’s wealth (plus another reason involving backstory that I won’t spoil). Aw, but Christian didn’t ask to be adopted by a rich family and accumulate more wealth than a small country! And now he spends it on a girl who deserves it because she’s normal! Don’t hate them cuz you ain’t them! Treat yoself!

Again, this is the sticking point for me. The fantasy of your husband wanting to sex you good, even possess you in some misguided but at least passionate way, that I get. The fantasy that your husband will be a selfish billionaire who buys you stuff and makes your dishy friends tremendously jealous… well, it’s still a fantasy, and surely it’s human nature wanting to be better and have more than your neighbors, but it’s not sexy. Is the fantasy here having great sex or having a great Instagram feed? Is it about personal fulfillment or the envy of others?

In Labor Day, Josh Brolin taught Kate Winslet how to bake a pie, the perfect kind of on-the-nose, semi-trashy, thinly veiled erotica. In Fifty Shades Freed, Christian tries to cook once, while wearing a watch and with his shirt tucked in, and immediately burns dinner. But who cares, he’s rich!

“Don’t you want to be rich” is just such a banal fantasy. Duh, everyone wants to be rich, or so we’re constantly told. And it doesn’t help, or maybe it’s partly because, of all the lifestyle porn, that the sex is equally banal. When Christian and Ana have sex in the shower, I’m not sure if one is meant to be turned on by the screwing or by the giant rain shower head from Sharper Image. Every time they do it, by the way, the terrible slow jams kick in again, including one particularly execrable coffee shop jazz cover of James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” You feel like you’re watching a shampoo commercial. The little tingle lets you know he’s your husband!

Fifty Shades Freed is just two or three painfully basic fantasies inelegantly smooshed together — wedded bliss, great sex, cool stuff (COOL STUFF!). When Ana tells Christian she’s pregnant, he gets immediately jealous of the unborn fetus. “I wanted to give you the world!” he yells.

“Yeah, well babies happen when people have sex, Christian,” she retorts.

Jesus, who wrote this, a 12-year-old? Fifty Shades Freed is meant to make us believe that a matching tea towel marriage doesn’t preclude shirtless Fabio romance novel cover sex, but everything is so catalog-ready and scrubbed free of humanity that it actually does the opposite. Monogamy and kinky sex are just another thing to dream about but never have, like a private jet and a vacation home in Aspen.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.