‘Fifty Shades Freed’ Review: Finally, a Sex Comedy From a Franchise That Took Itself Too Seriously

‘Fifty Shades Freed’ Review: Finally, a Sex Comedy From a Franchise That Took Itself Too Seriously

“Why do you defy me?” asks Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) to his new wife Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) as they have passionate sex with the help of handcuffs. “Because I can,” she replies, which only excites her partner more. Compared to how submissive and sapped of all agency the character was in her two previous outings, Ana does seem extremely mischievous in “50 Shades Freed,” the third and presumably last entry in this kinky franchise. Yet all in all, she’s only asking for the respect that she rightfully deserves. In any case, the mutual participation at play in this sex scene makes it a lot more exciting to watch than any of Christian’s theatrical BDSM tricks, and the rest of the movie follows suit. Finally, the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon has yielded a disarming comedy that makes this ridiculous material fun to watch.

In director James Foley’s second contribution to the cinematic brand extension of E.L. James’ bestselling series of erotic novels, the newly-married Ana is finally striving for more freedom in her relationship with her dominant partner. After the painfully one-sided sexual adventure of the first film, in which she met Christian and was brutally exposed to his odd habits, and after Christian’s even nastier control-freakishness in the ill-conceived “50 Shades Darker,” Ana is at last able to demand to hold the reins from time to time — a narrative turn that manages to frame their marriage as an empowering structure for women: now enclosed in the gilded cage of their union, Ana can pull on the rope that Christian had tied around her neck.

While honeymooning in Nice, she goes topless despite her husband’s possessive forbidding. At work, she tells Christian, “the boss of her boss of her boss,” that she might have to stay at the office later than planned. These moments of self-affirmation are both galvanizing and perplexing, hinting at a new feminist-leaning and more playful moment for Ana, while also being too insubstantial and out of character to constitute a true cause for celebration.

But the territory on which Ana asserts herself is, of course, the bedroom. She takes advantage of her new marital situation to blur the line between submission and control, teasing Christian sexually as much as she can. In other words, she introduces him to foreplay. By adapting its heroine’s perspective, the series displays a willingness to accept that sex can be a ridiculous proposition — and that concession rids this installment of the suffocating pomposity found in its predecessors. As it turns out, Christian’s treatment of sex in an overly serious manner had only served to emphasize its weirdness, making it disheartening and isolating for both consenting adults.

The previous films made that clear without critiquing it, often by portraying Ana’s distress in the hands of the domineering and uncommunicative Christian (a character who, admittedly, many readers and viewers find attractive). Alternatively, the films’ over-seriousness rendered  them self-divided enterprises. The sleek, dry style made even the most adventurous sexual acts seem ludicrous.

In “Freed,” by contrast, sex is often funny, because Ana wants it that way. She even makes Christian partake in the cliche of licking food off of a partner’s body — in a deliberate echo of the honey-dripping sequence in “9 ½ Weeks,” Ana finds a new application for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and turns that famous sexual game into a more reciprocal exchange than it was in Adrian Lyne’s film. (Kim Basinger’s cameo in “Darker” and “Freed” as Elena, Christian’s long-ago sexual obsession, cinches the connection.) At this point, who would have thought that a “Fifty Shades” film, supposedly interested in the very alternative kind of sexual experimentation, would provide enjoyable (and maybe for some, even exciting) sequences of respectful and playful foreplay and oral sex?

Even more surprising: how this lighter approach to sexual intercourse seems to lift the spirits of the characters along with the tone. Johnson, radiant and committed, gives Ana a certain confidence and ease that she’d never had before, and Christian, the man of steel himself, proves he has a few decent jokes in him – though Dornan struggles slightly to portray that goofiness. In cinema as in sex, a dose of self-awareness can do wonders.

While seeing these two finally behave like lovebirds is thrilling, and even though those scenes of more conventional sex are surprisingly well crafted, the essence of the “Fifty Shades” series has always been the transgression of norms and indulgence in extremes, but that theme was underplayed until now. The disappointing quality of the first two films demonstrated that the material didn’t live up to its own would-be provocations. “Freed” is thus a notable departure, circling back around to more relatable domestic concerns. The most convincing trials that Ana and Christian face in marriage are those that any couple must to address: communication, calibrating their power dynamics, and the all-important work/life balance. To those concerns are added the return of a vengeful ex-boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), whose motivations remain vague and whose story arc is resolved in less time than it takes Christian to untie his wife’s ankle belts.

The ending will surprise no one, except for the way it echoes another love story currently showing in cinemas. Just as Ana teaches Christian to trust her by showing him how much he needs her  — both for sex and for life — Alma, the heroine of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” eventually manages to harness her selfish husband Reynolds Woodcock by mechanically making him rely on her for his life. The degree of sarcastic awareness at play in both of these resolutions is the topic for another article. Nevertheless, it would seem that Ana and Christian will never be freed from the bondage of matrimony – and maybe that’s how they like it.

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