Between Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker, the franchise changed directors. Whereas the first film was helmed by Sam Taylor-Wood, the second and third have been placed in the hands of James Foley. That’s quite a big difference – from a female director to a male director, from an experimental director to an established Hollywood director, from a relatively inexperienced director to an experienced director – and it influences the feel of the franchise in various ways. On the one hand, Foley shies away from the more absurd and extravagant fringes of Taylor-Wood’s vision, while there’s also less of a visceral sense of communion with Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia Steele and more angst and pathos surrounding Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey. Yet Foley’s more conscious and conspicuous professionalism also creates a different kind of absurdity that’s more suited to the plot points of this second instalment, which see Steele and Grey trying to have a go at a more vanilla sex life and romantic lifestyle.
More specifically, Foley’s version is much more mannered and studied in the way in which it unfolds the franchise’s trademark sexecutive aesthetic. Full of cold, grey, gloomy vistas that work perfectly against the murky Seattle backdrop, his mise-en-scenes frequently feel as if they’ve been ripped straight from a GQ winter catalogue. If that’s the perfect venue for Grey, then it works even better for Steele’s drabness and intensified normality. Perpetually in a mild state of surprise yet also suffused with a mildness that seems incapable of registering surprise at anything, she’s drained of even more depth than in Fifty Shades of Grey, to the point where she feels like a coagulation of the mood and atmosphere of the film as a whole rather than a character in any discrete way. In that sense, Foley really captures the novel’s first-person address – a particular strength of his as a director – as well as its foundation in the universe of Twilight, and Twilight fan fiction. From the very first scene, it’s clear that we’re in the same iteration of the Pacific Northwest as occurs in Stephanie Meyer’s novels – a moody, gloomy, murky sameness that cries out for some kind of sexual or supernatural break in routine and expectation.
Interestingly, however, it’s not really sex that provides that break this time around. Instead, Foley inserts a series of picaresque flights of fancy – a yacht cruise, a helicopter crash – that sit awkwardly and uncomfortably with the rest of the film, even as they also occur at the moments when Steele and Grey’s romantic and erotic communion seems to peak. Watching it, I was reminded of something I recently read to the effect that monogamy is not in fact the sexual corollary to late capitalism, whose logic of accumulation lends itself more to polygyny, and male-centric polyamoury. In many ways, the driving tension in Fifty Shades Darker is this correlation, since the sexecutive aesthetic always seems to be gesturing towards a potentiality in Grey that can’t be satisfied by monogamy, or by Steele, alone. Of course, that’s a common trope in romantic fiction, but there’s a particular urgency, this time around, to all the previous “subs” that show up in Grey’s life, as well as all the intimations that Steele receives to the effect that she also may be eventually discarded in turn. Even the driving plot point – their efforts to be a “vanilla” couple – has to contort itself to avoid the more pragmatic, obvious solution to Grey’s proclivities; namely, that he find a series of other partners to fulfil his fetishes and instead treat Steele as his romantic and sexual life partner.
Of course, the film can’t stomach that solution, with the result that Grey needs to learn how to deflect his sexual sadism into a more general masculine stance. In other words, Grey’s challenge is to subsume fetishism back into the role of dark, brooding, mysterious hero – to confine sadism to his romantic persona – as Johnson cites Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and other icons of romantic fiction as a guide to how he might go about achieving that. In an era in which sexual politics has rendered the romantic comedy largely untenable, Fifty Shades Darker therefore recovers the sado-masochistic quotient present in most classic romantic fiction, but also figures that return of the repressed as a slyly comic effect, too ridiculous to be really revanchist. In that sense, Fifty Shades Darker seems more concerned to align itself with romantic fiction than with the romantic comedy, or with any cinematic lineage whatsoever, placing Foley in the challenging position of creating a literary register without making the film feel utterly redundant either. To some extent, he deals with that through the intensive focus on the world of publishing, with Grey buying Steele’s publishing house and Steele herself elevated to senior fiction editor. At moments, it almost feels as if we’re witnessing the beginning of a new publishing franchise – Grey and Steele – designed to pump out exactly the kind of narratives we’re watching.
Beyond that focus on the publishing house, however, Frey seems to present the couple’s return to “vanilla” as a return to the literary, and to the literary precedents to their relationship. As the film proceeds, Grey styles himself more and more after Mr. Darcy – he is the most authentic big-screen descendent of Darcy I have seen – while Steele adopts the role of a classic romantic heroine. Being literary and being vanilla come to amount to the same thing, and yet the more normcore the film tries to be the more absurd it feels, if only because its definition of normality is so disinterested in the cinematic. As if in a riposte to the very idea of cinematic mise-en-scene, both Steele and Grey’s houses are cluttered with normcore décor – perky self-help mantras printed on faded wood, a framed Chronicles of Riddick poster, old UFC fight advertisements – that cuts against the sexecutive aesthetic that forms Foley’s main cinematic innovation and contribution to the franchise. The result is a film that progressively undermines its own cinematic credentials in the name of its putative literary merits, which makes it absurd in some ways but redolent of every other middlebrow or normcore arthouse experience at the same time. As middlebrow literature gradually eclipses Foley’s promises of lowbrow cinema, a strange kind of comic register emerges in which the audience is forced to consider how easily they might end up being titillated after all.
One result of that situation is that the sex scenes are much closer to softcore porn this time around, divested of any real fetishism or kinkiness. At times, it still plays a bit like a Dummies Guide to S&M, but for the most part sex is just an excuse to look at the surface of Grey’s body, which is much more of an erotic object than any of his tastes or proclivities. As might be expected, there’s a real fixation on his muscularity, but the film is even more interested in his litheness and flexibility. With his torso writhing in and out of increasingly limber positions, this feels as much like a workout video as an erotic thriller, which is perhaps also a strategy for addressing an aspirational male demographic more directly than the opening film. Certainly, between the GQ aesthetic and the workout sequences, this feels like a film made for men as much as women, even though women are addressed first and foremost during the actual sex scenes. Yet as soon as things get too kinky, or Grey’s body is too eroticized, the pummelling soundtrack domesticates it, offering us a playlist that feels positioned somewhere between a catwalk and a workout session. Some of the best moments in the film depend upon these song choices, such as a supposedly outrageous sequence in which Grey masturbates Steele in an elevator that is undercut by being scored to Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” Scoring an elevator sex scene to actual elevator music – which appears in the soundtrack, rather than in the background, where it might just enhance the danger of it all – is a wonderfully comic touch.
Yet the “Moondance” sequence is also a bit uncharacteristic, since virtually all of the sex scenes are set to black music. More specifically, they traffic in black music made for white people – intensified, hyper-soulful voices that are quickly deracinated to hover, free-floating, over Frey’s mise-en-scenes. On the one hand, we’re presented with black singers who belt out white crooner classics as a soul commodity, but we’re also presented with singers like Adele who manage to turn this particular kind of commodified black sound into a more general and deracinated soul principle. In both cases, it’s hard not to feel that the film’s drabness and whiteness amount to much the same thing, as Frey outlines a white normcore worldview that longs for shock as much as it fears it. Once again, the Seattle backdrop works really well to draw that out – in the cool Pacific Northwest light, Johnson’s skin is so white it’s almost luminous, Twilight flesh – as the film gathers up a cheer squad of black women to express awe and admiration at Grey and Steele’s key plot points, only to fade back into the distance afterwards.
For that reason, I found the two most compelling figures in the film to be Grey’s stepmother, played by Marcia Grey Harden, and “Mrs. Robinson,” the woman who introduced him to his sadistic sexual proclivities as a young man, played by Kim Basinger. Within the logic of the franchise, these two women – and actors – are permitted a greater quotient of charisma than Grey and Steele, belonging to an older generation in which the hesitant whiteness of the central couple didn’t ramify in the same way. Accordingly, it’s around Basinger and Harden that all the franchise’s assumptions about race and class come closest to disclosing themselves, especially in a terrific final sequence that invokes and almost inverts the third act of Showgirls. At the same time, Basinger and Harden seem to stand in for the melodramatic kernel of the franchise – the frenzy beneath the flatness – with Basinger, in particular, putting in a performance that feels straight out of Douglas Sirk. They may not appear that often, but they’re an essential counterpoint to Steele and Grey. It’s reassuring, then, that they’re front and centre in the final sequence, which sets up a different kind of third film again, somewhere between the fetishism of the first and the vanilla of the second. I’m looking forward to seeing it.