Well, it has certainly been a year. Scarcely a day goes by that the news isn’t horrifying: the weather is out to get us all, awesome people keep dying, and we’re all apparently living out the worst James Bond movie in which Russia takes over the U.S. and there aren’t even any lasers or hot people in bikinis. My need for distraction has, if anything, only increased over the past twelve months. Fortunately for me (and you), Universal Pictures has come to our rescue and released the third and final installment in the Fifty Shades series, Fifty Shades Freed. Any critic can make cheap mom jokes, but I am a mom, so I’ll be sticking to actually analyzing the movie here.
Based on the trailers, the book, and the two previous movies, I was quite certain that I would be able to sit down and write yet another article about how this movie is actually an economic fantasy, not an erotic one, wasn’t that a fascinating comment on the state of American women’s sexuality in these latter days, and why the hell haven’t we evolved past the 19th-century Marriage Plot? But an interesting thing happened in the theater: I realized that Fifty Shades Freed actually had something coherent to say about cinematic eroticism itself apart from the fusion of money, love, and marriage that has defined this particular genre for about 280 years now.
“If I gave you diamonds and pearls
Would you be a happy boy or a girl?” –Prince, “Diamonds and Pearls”
Which is not to say that it isn’t primarily still an economic fantasy. Large portions of Fifty Shades Freed could double as an Audi commercial, as befits the sequel to a movie whose most orgasmic shot was of a yacht. (Granted, it was a really nice yacht.)(ed. note: NO JOKE) There are also some truly fabulous God’s-eye view shots of an Aspen mansion that provided the sort of soothing corrective emotional response every mom could use upon consideration of her kid’s 529 plan recently, what with the stock market acting like Charlie Tango on its last fateful flight. There’s a wedding eclipsed entirely by a European honeymoon that looks like its own best argument for a strong dollar; there are shopping trips and a frequently prominently-placed engagement ring on Ana’s hand that is a hell of a lot nicer than Bella Swan’s. If you want to live out your best The Thin Man fantasy in times of severe income disparity, this movie is definitely for you.
And if you want the more modern fantasy proffered by Fifty Shades Darker—the one where you get the hot rich guy and have your own super-fulfilling career in an industry that is definitely not on the ropes—well, Fifty Shades Freed has upped the ante and then some. Ana has gotten yet another promotion to Fiction Editor and acquired a gorgeous new office mostly composed of windows with a giant poster of Charlotte Brontë’s portrait on the wall, which made me happy beyond measure. It almost made up for her hot new author, one Boyce Fox, titling the first book in his Inferno series Purgatory. DEREK HALE I DO NOT CARE HOW BEARDY YOU ARE THE PURGATORIO IS THE SECOND PART OF THE DIVINE COMEDY.
Where was I? Oh, yeah; the plot. There’s an interesting twist missing from the movie that was prominent in the book, and I was eagerly anticipating how audience members would react when it was revealed. Remember Ana’s instantaneous promotion to Jack Hyde’s position after his abrupt departure in Darker? And remember how Ana asks Christian suspiciously if he had anything to do with it, and he is the picture of innocence? In the book version of Freed, it turns out that he’s lying, and all that glorious fantasy of the dream job straight out of college evaporates like so much spilled everpresent white wine. In the movie, Ana’s foresight in pushing Boyce Fox the Dante Dork is externally confirmed to have been prescient genius; his sales are through the roof already. She deserves that lovely office and everything that goes along with it; she’s earned every bit of her position. James Foley: the ultimate closer.
There’s also a less-interesting twist carried over from the book, which is that the sole difference between Jack and Christian is that the Greys adopted the latter. In other words: the line between obsessive serial harasser and obsessive serial dominant is the refining and acculturating effects of money. F. Scott Fitzgerald is laughing his ass off, somewhere.
“It’s your time
You got the horn so why don’t you blow it
You are fine
You’re filthy cute and baby you know it” – Prince, “Cream”
As I have been patiently explaining to various men of my acquaintance for the past five years or so: no, the Fifty Shades books are not actually that explicit. They got a reputation for being the dirtiest things in print largely because E.L. James’ talents lie in marketing rather than sentence construction. People would pass the books around, first in their fanfiction form and then in their barely edited vanity press form, with whispered recommendations about how sexy they were, mostly because they’d heard from other people that they were sexy books. This penumbra of horniness(ed. note: please tm this phrase at once) went seriously viral with the fortuitous advent of e-books, wherein anyone could read anything on a Kindle and nobody would be the wiser, except for the guy at my gym who kept trying to peek over my shoulder while I was on the elliptical machine. Sucked to be you, dude; I was reading Jacques Lacan then.
There are better erotic novels; there are better romance novels; there were then, there are now, and there were before. They haven’t been that hard to find, either. Hell, I bought my copy of The Story of O at the San Jose International Airport bookstore twenty-two years ago. What those other books don’t have is 1) text precisely balanced between traditional romance fiction and actual porn, and 2) a built-in eroticism generator courtesy of all the negative press that Twilight got and then the actual Fifty Shades books received once people started reading them critically. We live in America; if something is criticized and therefore forbidden, it’s automatically erotic, even if people are mostly criticizing its use of sentence fragments and lousy characterization.
This situation, while great for selling pallets of books at Costco, created a real problem for Universal during the adaptation process. The MPAA is famously aggressive about any depiction of sexual pleasure, and while the books themselves aren’t that risqué, anything filmed as written would get slapped with a NC-17 rating. Around this time, I started patiently explaining to those same various men of my acquaintance that no, there wouldn’t be much point in making an NC-17 movie or even actual porn out of these books. The core audience wanted a big-budget mainstream movie, one they could see at their local non-sticky-floored theater, one featuring attractive people capable of delivering dialogue semi-convincingly, decent lighting, and an actual plot. The men of my acquaintance remained bewildered, and I in turn couldn’t figure out what I wasn’t getting across. Eventually, I began to figure out that this disconnect was a symptom of a larger dichotomy in the cinematic language of fantasy.
For the most part, people over the age of eight tend to understand that movies do not represent reality. People don’t really fly, they don’t really die, and they don’t really have sex onscreen. Porn collapses the latter, but only insofar as a particular definition of “sex.” If, for instance, one defines sex as “physical activity resulting in orgasms for all participating parties,” quite a lot of porn does not show much sex at all. Instead, the definition of what pushes a movie beyond the pale of any acceptable MPAA rating has almost always centered on male sexuality. Specifically, erections. Even more specifically: ejaculation. Back in the day, the legal definition of hardcore pornography—what you could get thrown in jail for making or selling in most jurisdictions, and therefore what you could charge a lot more for—was whether or not a man got off, verifiably and unquestionably onscreen, hence the now somewhat-antiquated term “money shot.”
The titillating quality of porn, then, is the promise of what Lacan termed the Real—“a state in which there is nothing but need… that which resists symbolization absolutely.” It depicts actual people having actual sex, with no artifice or sneaky cinematic tricks or metaphor or anything other than absolute reality.
Except that it isn’t. At a minimum, even porn with absolutely zero production values still involves pointing a camera at people getting it on and filming it, and it is still a simulacrum of something that once took place. This isn’t even getting into looping and carefully positioned cameras and the fact that most sex doesn’t usually end with a guy furiously jacking off to a camera to capture that all-important signifier of the Real—which is an oxymoron to Lacan and anyone thinking about it for two seconds. And, of course, then there’s the anti-Real—the very very very fake non-sublimity often displayed by the female performers in question, which is generally of vanishing interest to either audiences or the legal system.
In stark contrast, “is she really getting off?” was the preeminent question regarding sexuality in early cinema.
Hedy Lamarr gets more credit these days as the co-inventor of frequency hopping technology, but she also helped invent the visual language of female pleasure onscreen. This is, arguably, the first depiction of female orgasm in a mainstream movie. The fact that most critics will insert the word “simulated” in that description even today tells you a lot about the historical debate over whether or not it was real. Crucially, this debate hinges entirely on a woman’s facial expressions.
It’s an extremely well-constructed scene, though. The Pearl Necklace of Totally Unsubtle Metaphor is framed perfectly but unobtrusively in an early shot between the two lovers, establishing its visual relevance to the connection between them, and reappears in such a way as to suggest that the man is getting off solely on going down on a woman. Audiences had to connect the dots, and the process of that connection became its own aesthetic and erotic reward.
The Fifty Shades movies do not usually employ this kind of cinematic language, which is one of the main reasons why their sex scenes don’t work particularly well. Sam Taylor-Johnson and James Foley generally get the first part right—Dakota Johnson is even better than Lamarr at conveying pleasure through the tiniest eye-crinkles and half-smiles—but don’t give her anything else to work with beyond the soundtracks, including and especially her costar. The camera doesn’t do much of anything for anyone’s ecstasy or enlightenment. This may be a metaphor for American female sexuality, but it’s an extremely subtle one.
Which brings us to Fifty Shades Freed and a sex scene that does mostly work using the same techniques that Gustav Machatý deployed eighty-five years ago in Ekstase. The scene in question appears about halfway through the movie, in which Christian wanders downstairs in search of his new bride and finds her engrossed in some Ben and Jerry’s. Because the two of them are incapable of doing anything other than arguing or boinking, they promptly go for the latter. Ana smears vanilla all over Christian’s chest and abs while he’s sitting on a table.
And then she starts licking the white, semitransparent liquid off of him, working her way down. For the first time in three movies, Jamie Dornan actually managed to convincingly act like he was genuinely enjoying himself for about a minute and a half. Then, because Christian Grey is fundamentally incapable of ever relinquishing control, even during what looked like a pretty decent blowjob, he promptly reciprocates, hopping off the table and plopping Ana onto it. He then uses the spoon to trail ice cream up her leg, then also licks his way up.
And no, at no time do we ever see any Dornan dick, nor do we ever in the course of all three movies.
([Werner Herzog voice]: Does this lack of full-frontal male nudity constitute what Lacan referred to as the signification of the phallus, as one cannot desire what one has, and so, upon seeing Jamie Dornan’s actual wang, we should all shrug and relinquish desire? Quite possibly.)
As for me, I sat there in the theater and thought:
1) That is an interesting combination of signifiers and signifieds.
2) This wasn’t in the book. HOLY CRAP JAMES FOLEY MANAGED TO DO SOMETHING CREATIVE.
Granted, it wasn’t that creative. Vanilla ice cream also makes an appearance in the second book, wielded by Christian on a trussed-up Ana. (For book readers, its appearance in the movie functions more or less in the same way as Hedy’s necklace.) This is still the only scene in all three movies to have anything approaching a metaphor or symbolism, and it’s also the only one to use anything remotely like porn imagery for that symbolism. The sequence of events leading to white stickiness on Christian’s abs is reversed, which heightens the reminder that this is fantasy, not reality, and certainly not the Real.
Not that anyone watching these movies has ever wondered if Dornan and Johnson are actually having sex, and the stars are eager to keep it that way. As Dornan pointed out in a recent interview:
I wouldn’t recommend that myself. I think it was…quite sticky. It gets dry and sticky quite quickly…I wasn’t a fan of it… [It was] messy and cold…I think we shot that, it was a night shoot. It was the middle of the night, we were tired. As long as it sorta looks sexy in the final thing, that’s all that really matters. Who cares.
JAMIE DORNAN THIS IS WHY NOBODY LIKES YOU IN THIS ROLE. You are selling a fantasy, or at least you’re supposed to be pretending to be. You know who manages to muster enthusiasm about every damn role he’s in? The Rock. And he has to star in movies with Vin Diesel, who has got to be harder to work than Dakota Johnson. She, bless her heart, stuck with saying “I’m allergic to dairy—so it was dairy-free coconut ice cream or something.” Not even the ice cream was real!
But this is, in its own way, exactly what the core audience wants. This is a movie based on a book which is fanfiction of another book which is fanfiction of yet another book; it doesn’t get any more fictional than this. The whole point of fantasy lies in its contrast to reality, which is the fundamental tension in making something fake become real on a screen. All movies are inherently artificial, the results of endless work behind the scenes, take after take, the combined efforts of hundreds if not thousands of people all working together to create something meant for strangers to sit in a dark room and hopefully be entertained and possibly even enlightened by. That’s ultimately why all those women sitting in the audience with me didn’t stay home and watch free hardcore porn online that night: we all wanted something that had been created for us rather than something “real” created for someone else.
“Maybe you’re just like my mother” — Prince, “When Doves Cry”
Most romantic fantasies end with weddings rather than begin with them, and the whole point is to leave the happily-ever-after as the always-anticipated future state of the Real. Of all the major 19th-century Marriage Plot novels—that is to say, those whose plots center on middle-class women improving wealthy men just enough to marry them—only one gives any real details of life after the wedding. Not coincidentally, it’s Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë.
(Jane Austen, by contrast, rates a poster on Ana’s office wall, but high up enough to render her head invisible. SHOULD HAVE HAD MORE EXPLICIT PROCLAMATIONS OF FEMALE DESIRE IN YOUR NOVELS, JANE.)
Ten years have gone by; Edward Rochester is now mostly blind and minus a hand; Thornfield Hall has burned to the ground; he is now largely dependent on Jane, who seems to like it that way, and they have a son. Christian Grey makes it out of Fifty Shades Freed with both eyes and both hands, but the song remains the same. Fundamentally, all of these stories are about men realizing that they need to get it together because a woman has shown them how much better their lives could be; the Fifty Shades series just involves more buttplugs. What it doesn’t involve is an unsubtle castration metaphor, as the movie ends with our protagonists back in the Red Room, and the mid-credits scene demonstrates conclusively that Christian’s fears of no sex after a kid are entirely unfounded, as Ana is pregnant again.
Remember what I said a year ago about how you can tell a lot about people based on their fantasies? Most romances treat marriage and pregnancy as legitimizing qualifications for all the sexin’ that has taken place, which is also why both of these conditions tend to appear at the end of stories. Most marriage plots require that their male characters lose something–usually their overinflated sense of themselves, but sometimes quite a lot more—to be worthy of their heroines. Fifty Shades Freed is dumber than toast, but it treats sex as its own reward separate from marriage or children, and it gives Christian something rather than taking it away from him. He finally comes to terms with his toxic attitude towards his dead birth mother and by extension the brunettes he loves to dominate. He realizes that the best way to be a better person is not to control every aspect of his life, but accept the changes that Ana has brought with her, including fatherhood.
This is not a movie seething with resentment of powerful men and wanting a refraction of their power, gained through sex or love. It is not a movie about wanting to cut a sexily threatening man down to size and domesticating a rake. It is, for all of its shortcomings, firmly wedded to the idea that people can change for the better and grow while still remaining themselves rather than be pruned into something acceptable. Maybe Jane’s poster is above Charlotte’s in Ana’s office because Christian ends up more like Mr. Darcy than Mr. Rochester.
We are currently living in a country run by a serial harasser, where new terrible revelations about the people who craft our movies arrive seemingly daily, where our careers are constantly revealed to be at risk by some jerk several rungs above us in the corporate hierarchy. For a lot of women, the ongoing onslaught on our privacy, our lives, and our health feels like a constant attack. We can’t even go get some well-deserved distraction without some critic telling us that the movie we want to see sucks and we’re morons for wanting to see it. The logical thing to do under these circumstances might be to want movies where women reign triumphant over men and crush them beneath our bootheels.
When oysters get something stuck under their shells, they form layers of nacre around whatever is bothering them. What tends to be left out of this cliché is that most natural pearls are ugly warty things nobody would ever find attractive. They’re formed from necessity and irritation in an attempt to make something hurt less. Rarely, they emerge perfectly round and glistening; usually, they take a lot of determined work to make something aesthetically appealing. James Foley tried—sweet vanilla ice cream, he tried—but Fifty Shades Freed is still lumpy as oatmeal. This is not his fault; the particular irritant in this oyster has been layered with 278 years of attempts to smooth it over and make it something approximating art. That these most recent layers are questionable and at times highly ridiculous don’t make them any less insightful about the human condition.
And if you want a Real erotic experience, go listen to some Prince.