The Fifty Shades franchise has always walked a delicate line between abuse and consent. Of course, any mutual sex act between consenting adults is totally A-OK in my book, but as I noted in my review of Fifty Shades of Grey—still, by far, the best of the franchise—how would a virgin even know if she was into S&M? Still, the first couple of films managed to navigate that tightrope smartly enough, exemplified by the now famous boardroom scene in which Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) literally draws up a contract dictating the boundaries of her sex life with billionaire playboy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). It became, famously, the Sexy Consent Film.
The problem with the third and (blessedly) final film of the franchise is this: It’s less about what’s going on in that notorious Red Room and more about Anna and Christian’s life together as a newly married couple. And the dominance that Christian enjoys in the bedroom begins to look a whole lot like an abusive spouse out of it.
Take some of the earliest scenes, when Anna and Christian are on their honeymoon: They’re lounging on a topless beach in the south of France and Anna wants to take her top off. Christian forbids it, noting that other men will be ogling at her. When she defies him, arguing, accurately, that hers will just be one pair in a sea of boobs, he comes up with a second, more acceptable reason: The paparazzi are always lurking. But his first instinct was definitely, “Your boobs are for my eyes alone.”
When Anna goes back to work, she decides to keep her professional name, Anastasia Steele, leading to Christian storming into her office in a fit of pique. “I tried to email you and it bounced back.” (Again and again throughout the film he devalues her professional life, at one point suggesting that she drop everything and join him on a three-week trip to New York.)
And Christian becomes extra cave-man-like when it turns out that Anna’s old obsessed boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), is back in town with revenge on his mind.
Later, Christian buys Anna a house, without consulting her. Sure, she loves the house, but that’s beside the point. It’s all about Christian’s control. (The new house also leads to the film’s most satisfying scene, where Anna tells off the beautiful and condescending architect—“You may call me Mrs. Grey”—but even those scenes have a soupçon of misogyny.)
Worst of all? Christian doesn’t want Anna to get pregnant because he wants her all to himself and fears that she’ll love a child more than him. That’s some classic abuser behavior, right there, people.
Somehow, all of this plays like a romantic fantasy because Christian is so dreamy and, yes, so rich. The real fantasy of the Fifty Shades series is twofold: That Anna gets to bask in the devotion of an eternally smitten hunk and that she now has an all-access pass to his luxurious world of wealth and privilege.
It’s always useful at times like this to ask yourself: What if Christian were paunchy and poor? Would all of his possessiveness, his need to dominate, his belittling of Anna’s agency be all that hot? Survey says, not so much.
Anyway there’s not much more I can say about this film. Dakota Johnson still charms; Dornan is still bland (bored, more likely) but ridiculously hot. The Jack Hyde storyline seems laid on to give the movie some semblance of “plot.” Rita Orr is there, too, strangely enough. The surfaces are all shiny and the production values lavish. The title makes zero sense, unless to suggest that we are all finally freed of this franchise.
As for the sex? It’s pretty tame by now—unless you consider Anna and Christian sexily licking ice cream off each other transgressive stuff. My overall discomfort with the film’s gender politics even manages to creep its way into the Red Room: At one point, Christian gets Anna all hot and bothered and walks away, to prove to her how horrible it feels to be betrayed. “This isn’t love, Christian!” Anna objects.
Was it ever?