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“Fifty Shades Freed” learned nothing from “Damage”

Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) steels herself for yet another punishment in “Fifty Shades Freed.”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

In the beginning, it was easy to drop comparisons between the emerging “Fifty Shades” franchise and movies like Adrian Lyne’s steamy romantic drama “9-1/2 Weeks.” I was a huge fan of the Kim Basinger-Mickey Rourke soft core classic, mainly because it actually got my much younger self a bit hot under the collar when it came out back in 1986. The sensual scene of food foreplay in front of the open refrigerator was quite inspired for the time, and there was a decidedly adult perspective granted to the characters, in particular Basinger’s slightly older working woman. She wasn’t a naïve child on the cusp of adulthood, which meant that audiences could indulge in the fantasy without feeling creepy.

It was also fun to note how Basinger pops up in “Fifty Shades of Grey” as the woman who initiated billionaire baby boy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) to the world of S&M kink (although I would imagine her version of dark sensuality would be lustier thanks to her time hanging out with Rourke). Now, of course, these narratives don’t exist in the same cinematic universe, but cinema loyalists can dream a little taboo dream, a longing for a sizzling and titillating tease, right?

Of course, the new and final installment (“Fifty Shades Freed”) proposes to look at how happily ever after might take shape and still hold onto its tawdry thrills. By this point, the comparison to “9-1/2 Weeks” is so far in the rearview, it’s disappeared from the field. Now, I found myself longing for more of the charged eroticism at the heart of Louis Malle’s “Damage” from 1993. That film, a pitch-perfect adaptation of Josephine Hart’s brisk novel of the same name, married the freedom and sexual empowerment of a female character (a divine Juliette Binoche) with several layers of familial taboo, especially in the affair she has with her fiancée’s father (Jeremy Irons).

All of which is completely missing from “Fifty Shades Freed.” Anastasia (the decidedly unsexy Dakota Johnson) has married Christian and seized the keys to an S&M kingdom beyond her wildest dreams, but all she wants to do is drive fast cars and play games with her hubby intended to satisfy his every whim. There’s supposed to be a sense of ownership of her sexual power and identity, but it is difficult to discern when every encounter of supposed compromise leads to either some sort of punishment for Anastasia’s transgressive action or an inevitably outright acquiescence to Christian’s will. I never, for a minute, bought that Anastasia exhibited the kind of freedom and agency Binoche had in “Damage.” 

Binoche ruled the dynamic of every relationship she was in throughout the film. The men and women merely orbited around her celestial body. She drives men mad, breaks up marriages, and leaves dead lovers in her wake, whenever a lover gets careless and seeks to exert unwanted control over her.

We’re supposed to see the union of Anastasia and Christian as more enlightened; they are attempting to mash the sharp edges of S&M into the round hole of matrimony. Sadly, I wish both Anastasia and Christian had cozied up with a copy of the Josephine Hart novel or the film adaptation. They would have learned a trick or two that would have truly spiced up their relationship or potentially resulted in a meaningful display of truly empowered personal dominance.

There is a half-hearted plot line about the vanilla sexual missionaries being stalked by Anastasia’s former boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) who has a mysterious link to Christian’s past, but this story element, much like its beyond passé sexual interludes feels like a link from an internet search on soft core porn narratives that would be buried eight or nine pages deep. Is this the state of American sensuality and our taste for forbidden desires in the age of social media? Where are our truly (heart) broken souls?

Hart told us in her novel that sometimes it’s simply not possible for a damaged person to change. They might be the ultimate survivors, but they are that way because they know exactly who they have become as a result of the trauma in their lives. Just know your rules and their limits and stick to them. That’s better than any half-hearted compromise or tepid sex play. Now that’s what it means to be “Freed.”

Rating: R; Grade: D