The following conversation about Fifty Shades Freed, this weekend’s undisputed box-office champion, comprises electronic correspondence between The Hollywood Reporter contributor Simon Abrams and comics writer Alex de Campi. In this thread, you will find some mild spoilers. We highly recommend that you see the film before reading this exchange, but that’s more of a suggestion than an order. We are, after all, not your mom.
Simon Abrams, Shogun Assassin: The Fifty Shades franchise has made big bank this box office, despite often being critically dismissed as a series of unsexy, moronic and overwrought “chick flicks.” This assessment is not wholly inaccurate, but it is unproductively harsh. I confess that I still think E.L. James’ prose in Fifty Shades of Grey is rather amateurish. Still, the courtship of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a kind of sadomasochistic Henry Higgins, by Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), his Pollyanna-ish Eliza Doolittle, was originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction. So I tend to think James’ editors deserve some blame for its original, uh, roughness.
Still, my larger point being: Just how seriously should we take the Fifty Shades films? These movies are unusual in that they are, like the Twilight films before them, so popular that they’ve become the new business model. The Fifty Shades films are also, despite often defined by erotic thriller tropes and cliches, uncommon because of their preoccupation with female sexuality. It would accordingly be too easy to outright dismiss Fifty Shades Freed because of its creators’ imaginative and technical shortcomings.
I read two compelling articles about Fifty Shades Freed before seeing it for myself. Both informed the way I saw — and struggled with my enjoyment — of the film. The first one can be found at Fandor, and it’s by Justine Peres-Smith. She writes, “[Fifty Shades of Grey] represents the first steps toward the future of what femme-friendly erotic cinema can be,” adding that the first adaptation “is the only [R-rated] film in the [box-office opening weekend] top 10 that is explicitly about sex, and the only one with a female lead. Based on a wildly successful book series of the same name, it is the most successful erotic franchise in film history.”
I was compelled by what Peres-Smith identified as a female-gaze-centric appeal. “The movies feature soft-core sex and nudity, which is often edited to a steamy pop hit. But what sets these scenes apart from other films that dramatize sex is that while they increasingly focus on Grey’s desire to ‘dominate,’ they also focus on Ana’s pleasure, not as a reward for male desire, but as a central theme of the film.”
Time‘s Stephanie Zacharek goes further: “Movie nudity is so rare today that it makes what Dakota Johnson does, in all three Fifty Shades movies, that much more remarkable. She takes Anastasia seriously while retaining a sense of humor about herself. In a scene where Grey’s tongue follows the length of Anastasia’s leg, from ankle to wherever, Anastasia gives in to the moment, her neck arched in glorious silhouette. Johnson has a sense of Anastasia not just as part of a pristinely arranged tableau but also as a sensualist, with all the attendant nerve endings and complex emotions that that implies.”
Zacharek adds that Fifty Shades is a welcome respite to the generally juvenile treatment of sex in popular films. “Today’s sex scenes, and the semi-nudity they feature, are rarely languorous or sensual. Instead, sex is generally presented as something best rushed through, Energizer Bunny–style, to limit the risk of embarrassment or remorse, or even the possibility of actual pleasure. In real life and in the best movies, a woman’s naked body has an innate elegance; it looks less dignified when it’s obscured by lingerie or a low-cut top, as we so often see in movies today. ”
With these two articles in mind: I wanted to discuss with you the effectiveness and other issues of Fifty Shades Freed. Just so our readers know: You just penned a new weekly miniseries called Twisted Romance for Image Comics; its first issue is in stores this week. You’ve also written a fair amount of erotica, and are easily one of my favorite people to talk about movies with.
So, Alex: How did the film work for you? I know you and I both cringed at the male-gaze-centric perspective during the sex scenes, just as we both kinda tuned out during the thriller portion of the film. Still, what did you think of Fifty Shades Freed?
Alex de Campi, Lone Wolf and Cub: Let me state up front that my only qualifications for reviewing this film are that I am a woman, supposedly its target audience, and I’ve written a whole lot of porn. (Erotica, if we’re trying to be classy.) I’m also the survivor of an abusive relationship. I wanted this film to be great. Women deserve better films and films from the female gaze that celebrate sexual attraction. If done well — and I know this from my own writing work — it really lands with the male audience, too, who can’t quite figure out why the story feels new and fresh all of a sudden.
Yet, alas. If you recall, we ended the film with me giving two middle fingers to the credits screen (in the empty theater) and yelling, “Fuck you, terrible movie!” — so that pretty much sums it up. First, the good: Dakota Johnson. Boy was I surprised by her. She was genuine, she was in the moment and her performance was delightful. I was surprised how great she was: completely believable as the reader self-insert character, the slightly heavier-than-Hollywood usual (so, a size 8) every-girl heroine.
Now, the bad. For a movie that makes such a big deal about being erotic, the sex is both boring and filmed perfunctorily at best. Every sex scene, there’s two seconds of foreplay, and then it’s Jamie Dornan, humping gamely away and desperately wishing he was somewhere, anywhere, but there. Look. Shooting a sex scene is just like shooting a fight scene. You have to choreograph it and block it. It has to have some sort of twist to it. But every sex scene but one in this godawful film is just a complete A to B straight line (that is, Tab A into Slot B), ending with penetrative sex, because that is apparently the only thing two people can do in bed. (Or elsewhere.)
As for the emotional arc of the film, which is the most important thing in romance/erotic romance: It ends up not having the courage of its convictions. Thus we wrestle with this also incredibly tacked-on thriller plot, where all the suspense cards are pretty much dropped in your lap as soon as it’s introduced (we find out the baddie’s identity — Mr. Hyde, the names in this film are a gift — and his motivation almost immediately). Because of this, there is no actual, credible resolution of the issue that Christian Grey is an abusive man-child who doesn’t need to be tamed, he needs to be slapped. Repeatedly.