It says a lot about an erotic film when you're enjoying your ice-cream far better than a sex scene that's meant to be explosive. That's where I found myself last evening, seated in the Shaw Theatres Lido, balls deep in a small tub of Ben and Jerry's. As each mouthful of cookie-decorated creaminess made its way to the happy home that was my belly, Dakota Johnson was pretending to get off at Jamie Dornan's skillfully bogus performance on the big screen. Yes, I had caved and was watching a preview of Fifty Shades Freed, the third and final film adaptation (or "climatic chapter", as its marketing materials have fondly referred to) of E.L. James' book series.
I have enjoyed my fair share of climaxes in my 30 years of watching films, but Fifty Shades Freed certainly wasn't one of them. You know that moment when you realised you had lady parts and wanted those to meld with some man bits on film? Mine was when Michelle Pfeiffer, as Catwoman, licked Michael Keaton, as Batman, in Batman Returns (1994). Sure, I was about 4, but I somehow understood that what I had just seen was raw, unadulterated passion, and something only grown-ups did. I gulped — and that's when I knew. When Demi Moore tried to seduce Michael Douglas in Disclosure (1994), I gulped again. More gulping activity followed suit when I watched Diane Lane and Olivier Martinez in Unfaithful (2002), and Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in Secretary (2002).
But watching the Fifty Shades trilogy since 2015 had always left a sour taste in my mouth. Yesterday was no different — I exited the theatre feeling pissed off, angry, and in need of a shower. Not because the film was bad (lets face it, it's no Oscar contender), but because I noticed parts of myself, my mother and my friends in the female characters, and recognised the men of my past and present in the male portrayals. The tried-and-tested trope of cold, insensitive man-child meets innocent and giving woman has pretty much exhausted itself through many a chick flick, but Fifty Shades puts this under the microscope, blows it out of proportion and exists to remind ourselves what a relationship should not be like.
Sure, Fifty Shades Freed paints a pretty picture. First of all, it looks beautiful. The film opens with Johnson reprising her role as Anastasia Steele, decked out in a Chantilly-lace tulle-sheath gown by Monique Lhuillier. Dornan, as Christian Grey, returns to assume the role as a man who's about to wed his wife (why the phrase 'man and wife' instead of 'husband and wife' is still used is beyond me). The couple is then whisked off to a honeymoon in predictable Paris (yawn), cycling through quaint streets (how original) and getting caught in the rain (groundbreaking). Then there's that money shot of the couple against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. Whatever the French tourism board's paying the producers, it's working — I almost considered revisiting the capital. Of course, the couple has amazing sex, or so the actors have led us to believe.
Then comes the first hint of patriarchy, set in the French Riviera, to boot. Anastasia really wanted to take her bikini top off, but Christian didn't allow it. He didn't like other men looking at her, and so she backed down. I'm sorry, what? Have we regressed to a time when your husband's word is law? She took her top off eventually, and Christian the man-child returned to the beach, pissed off. Games were being played here, I get it. She liked being punished, I get it. But it still made me uncomfortable, because I know of women who still dress according to their husbands' rules and not for themselves, and aren't rewarded with a climax at the end of their argument. Strike one, Christian.
Strike two happened when he didn't give her much time with her friends. When he eventually did, he actually came along with them. Anastasia was elated when he gifted what I could only assume was an all-expenses paid trip for their friends to get together in beautiful Aspen, but he didn't really leave her alone, save for one shopping trip with the girls. Anastasia didn't seem to be that interested in her friend's well-being too. When she suspected that one of them had relationship problems and addressed it to Christian, he brushed it aside. The man-child had spoken.
Strike three came at the announcement of Anastasia's pregnancy. Christian dealt with it in a way that no amount of wealth or good looks could excuse. While you saw Anastasia form a hint of a backbone in this unfortunate scene, it's still pitiful to watch. I no longer empathised with her. I felt sorry that the man she had chosen to marry didn't share the same values and goals in marriage, and certainly didn't share a love language. They've been together for the span of three films now, but their characters haven't emotionally matured much, or understood how to deal with each other's idiosyncrasies. Anastasia still welcomed the emotional manipulation, blackmail and abuse, as readily as she had embraced the luxury trappings that came with him: A new house, a promotion, a helper and bodyguards. I gulped — not because of the palpable sexual tension, but because I was reminded of the number of times I had to kowtow to someone I thought I loved, or watched other women do the same in fear of a loss of love or privilege.
Apart from the three strikes, other subtleties in the film didn't sit well with me either. It pitted woman against woman in the scene when Anastasia felt threatened by another attractive female flirting with Christian. There were way too many car chase shots that were more for Audi's benefit than the thrill of the chase (hello, #sponsoredpost). When Anastasia's new security personnel were introduced, the male was significantly more attractive than his female counterpart, with his hotness acknowledged multiple times in the film. I rolled my eyes. Why couldn't her female bodyguard be as conventionally attractive as she was strong? Other themes could have been explored further, too, that of Christian's relationship with both his birth and foster mothers, or Anastasia's friendship with her friend perhaps. Rita Ora in her role as Christian's sister Mia, at best, was forgettable.
Ultimately, Fifty Shades Freed is worth a watch. It exists as a reminder to both women and men of what not to do in a relationship, and educates on signs of a toxic and abusive partner. It's a warning for women to wise up, too. Yes, the guy's an asshole, but you're not being that smart yourself for falling into his trap. That's perhaps the best gift such a successful trilogy (the first two films have banked almost US$950 million globally) can give. There's also that killer soundtrack, which is faultless. But if you ever watch the show and find yourself humming to Ellie Goulding's 'Love Me Like You Do' and fantasising about the man you love beating you up after he's emotionally manipulated you, I suggest you run for the hills. Fifty Shades Freed opens in theatres on 8 February.