I spent my down time during the Fifty Shades sequel (there was a lot of down time) approximating what categories of people benefit from this franchise. Audi manufacturers, certainly. Sex shops, probably. Lingerie designers. Baby boomers who haven’t quite figured out how to navigate the trenches of internet porn. For a book series that sold over 100 million copies and a first film that made over half a billion dollars, clearly this semi-pornographic exultation of exorbitant wealth and transactional romance appeals to somebody.
Fifty Shades Darker begins under a bed instead of on top of one. A cowering child hides from a scene of violent domestic abuse. This is Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), armed with a sad back story and ready to win back his lover. Said lover Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is now a college graduate, working as an assistant at a publishing company, and as indicated by the weepy musical cue (“Nobody Said It was Easy”), still hasn’t recovered from her erotic awakening.
Let’s rewind: how did we get here? The long answer is a long rewind: the retrograde power dynamics of a 1950s marriage, where the man makes the rules and the lady knows her place (“boss” and “boyfriend” are interchangeable terms here). The short answer goes something like this: a college-aged virgin is seduced (or stalked — a matter of semantics) by a mysterious billionaire with a taste for sadomasochism. He’s emotionally closed-off; she’s the woman who can cure him of his deviant bedroom proclivities. By the end of the first movie, their relationship dangles by a thread — can Christian change his ways?
The short answer is eh, kind of. Who cares, really. Let’s crowd the movie with a tortured past (Crack-addict mom? Check. Pedophilia? Check.) plus a slew of half-assed villains (two psycho exes and one psycho boss) to distract from the real villain of the piece: the stalker-cum-sociopath at the heart of it all. Our naive heroine only seems to notice her lover’s abusive qualities in hot flashes, which are forgotten as quickly as they come. All of their arguments are quickly resolved by ostensibly kinky coitus which nearly always ends up semi-clothed and missionary.
It’s not Christian’s tastes in the bedroom that are sick, though the franchise goes to great lengths to pathologize his interests as an aberrance he must receive treatment for. What’s sick is that Anastasia’s capitulation to his tastes feels more like a naive bargain than her choice or desire. She’s still a novice to sex — both kinky and otherwise — and has graduated to varsity-level moves before she ever gets the chance to learn what she likes. Consent is a much thornier web than writer E. L. James or her husband Niall Leonard (who wrote the sequel’s screenplay) or new director James Foley are willing to admit. Women consent to things they don’t want all the time. The consent of the miserable — especially in women — taps into ancient cultural conditioning. Women are socialized to de-value themselves to the point of tabula rasa. Anastasia is the white space between the lines. The movie is never about her desires — it is about Christian’s, and how Anastasia negotiates with them. Whether she gives consent or withdraws it, his desire is the axis around which she turns.
What really gets Anastasia off are Christian’s mommy issues. After a lightning-round of “kinky fuckery” (Ana’s words) in Christian’s childhood bedroom, she stumbles upon a photo of his birth mother and becomes fixated. In another beguiling sexual encounter, Christian breathes heavily (too heavily?) as Anastasia draws on his chest with lipstick — this zone is off-limits. In an even more bizarre encounter, Christian admits to wanting to punish women that look like his mother. The next scene does not find Anastasia running for the hills, as you might expect, but instead considering a marriage proposal.
To the astonishment of everyone, the movie is not yet over. Still to come are: helicopter crashes, wine glasses thrown in faces, a sex scene that times a thrust with the soundtrack’s beat-drop, an acrobatic performance on a pommel horse, and Anastasia’s former boss looking disheveled while burning a Grey family photo. The exact order of these events doesn’t matter.
At times the film almost resembles the naughty sex thrillers that were in vogue in the late eighties and nineties like Basic Instinct or one of Adrian Lyne’s many indulgent trash films. As bad as Lyne’s movies are, they at least have a familiar narrative arc. Fifty Shades’s momentum resembles a sporting match more than a movie: it has the bloated push-pull, stop-start rhythms of a football game (the short-lived orgasms resemble touchdowns, which collect perfunctorily like tick marks in the corner). The screenplay is just a series of scenes with little linking them together besides the fact that Anastasia and Christian are still breathing and subjecting us to their terrible lives. Without recognizable story beats, the only real indicator that this movie might eventually end is the run time.
If the movie went full soap and lathered on the camp, Paul Verhoeven-style, it might work — but it doesn’t do that either. At some points the ridiculousness feels like it must be intentional — why else would there be a framed Chronicles of Riddick poster in the background of an otherwise Very Serious Scene? But it’s not ridiculous enough to make it watchable trash. In a scene where one of Christian’s stalkerish exes appears brief and wraithlike in Anastasia’s bedroom, I found myself actively welcoming the prospect of a second-act bait-and-switch, where James Foley is swapped for M. Night Shyamalan and the twist is that Anastasia is schizophrenic, or can see ghosts, or has actually been dead this entire time.
But Anastasia is still alive, and as the actress contractually obliged to play her, Johnson is passably charming, though there’s very little for her to do except look coy or blissed-out or weepy (thankfully not all at once). Dornan looks like a Greek sculpture, and his Christian Grey is about as emotionally developed (though much more chaste — he’s usually covered up by far more than a delicately-placed fig leaf). He has two expressions: dead-eyed anger and dead-eyed sexual arousal.
If you remove the fact that Christian Grey looks like an underwear model (his only redeeming quality — and yet, so much clothed sex!), this really should be a horror movie. Christian Grey is just a sliver of a parallel dimension away from Patrick Bateman — an actual serial killer — though at least within American Psycho is a robust critique of capitalism. At the risk of sounding like a Marxist killjoy, one of Fifty Shades’ most disturbing lusts is not the one skittishly explored in the bedroom — it’s the adoration of extravagant wealth. The most pornographic scenes in the film are the worshipful pans of expensive suits and gowns, price-tags still dangling, the barely lived-in penthouse, the gleaming yacht. There is something acutely painful about watching these oblivious, spoiled tycoons throw away their money on nonsense. Christian literally punishes Anastasia for donating money she doesn’t need to charity — and therein lies the rub. A childish billionaire who gets off on hurting people (cough cough wink wink nudge nudge) just isn’t sexy.