This is not a review of 50 Shades Darker. It is more of a warning. It seems like a remarkable accomplishment to make a film worse than 50 Shades of Grey, but it is a feat the producers have managed to accomplish. It continues to focus on Anastasia Steele (Ms. Johnson) and her billionaire boyfriend, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and their mutual complete misunderstanding of BDSM as a lifestyle.
I could tell you about the plot, but it really doesn’t have much of one. Lots of things happen, but not for any particular reason, including moving the story forward. The script was written by Niall Leonard, the husband of Erika Mitchell, who wrote the books under the pen name of E. L. James. It will surprise no one to learn that he is primarily a television writer.
Another problem is the director, James Foley. In the first film, they had a woman director, who at least had some appreciation for the sculpted body of Jamie Dornan. Foley brings the typical heterosexual sensibility where the focus is more on the body of the woman. When Dornan does some shirtless pull-ups, the camera barely peeks let alone lingers. A celebration of an attractive male body is not in the cards in this movie, a very odd choice for a film supposedly for women.
The bottom line is that it doubles down on the most offensive problem in the original movie. The basic premise is that sexual abuse as a teenager (technically statutory rape by the later introduced character of Elena, played by Kim Bassinger) led to Grey’s interest in BDSM. Okay, maybe the sex was consensual but not legal, but here is the problem. She is his Domme, and when he grows up, he becomes a Dom. It is true that children who are sexually abused as children may wind up sexually abusing children as an adult. That has nothing to do with BDSM practitioners. If you are a submissive, you will probably stay a submissive and be attracted to that over the long haul. There are switches who can go back and forth between the two, but that is still something different. Acting as a submissive when you are younger does not turn you into a Dom when you get older.
The big reveal is that he is a sadist who likes hurting women who look like his biological mother, who commited suicide when he was four. He is mentally ill – not a BDSM practitioner. The movie does not in any way differentiate between the two.
And that leads to the other serious related problem with both movies. BDSM is something that both parties have to have an interest in. It is not something you have to learn to like- it is a kink that you are already attracted to. Trying to turn someone vanilla into a submissive will never work, unless it involves kidnapping and excessive and brutal mind control. I have also known submissives who tried to turn their new boyfriends into dominants. That almost never works either.
One of my favorite lines of all time comes from the British television special A BlackAdder’s Christmas Carol where Blackadder says to his dimwitted servant, “Congratulations, Mr Baldrick! Something of a triumph, I think — you must be the first person ever to spell `Christmas‘ without getting any of the letters right at all.” That pretty much sums up both of these movie. They are supposedly movies about BDSM that get absolutely nothing right. It would take a book to explain all of the things this movie gets wrong about BDSM. Fortunately, there are a lot of good books out there. Education is an important part of BDSM play. For example, check out our review of Jay Wiseman’s SM 101.
Of course, it also gets almost everything else wrong- helicopter crashes, publishing, what the term Internet hits means, the fact that you can’t create commercial art of someone without their permission without facing a huge lawsuit, and how actual people behave and speak. It gets the vanilla sex wrong as well – including making it literally vanilla with Ben and Jerrys Vanilla ice cream as a product placement. Unlike the book, they leave out the sex part with the ice cream. All you get is product placement.
The infamous shower scene in a shower larger than most people’s bathrooms defies gravity and physicality and ignores the fact that shower sex can be challenging, especially without any lube. They manage to avoid one of the classic shower sex problems, where one of you gets sprayed in the face by water. They solve that problem by having the water come from above, straight down. It is known as a rain shower head, but I have personally never seen one this large. It would be great for sex, but a bit terrible for actually taking a shower. He is a billionaire, so maybe this shower is just for him to push clothed women into. Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that they are clothed? Sure, it is a fantasy, but come on.
A lot of viewers were confused by the scene with the Ben Wa balls, which Christian forces her to wear inside of her at a masked ball. Actually, some BDSM players have used them in this way, but the balls do not provide any pleasure. It is about control. Ben Wa balls are actually not intended for pleasure, but were developed centuries ago as a form of vaginal exercise. Learning to grip the balls and hold them in place helps tight the muscles in your vagina so that you can later tighten your vagina around your lover’s cock. In BDSM practice, making your lover wear them in public means she must keep her muscles constantly clenched to hold them in place, or they will embarrassingly fall out.
Ana is impossibly naive about sex, but then again, she remained a virgin until she met Grey. That she was unable to recognize nipple clamps maybe makes sense, but of course,in the film they are not actually used. They also left out the part from the book where she asks about butt plugs.
And seriously, he has a red room for sex and not a dungeon? One thing that BDSM practitioners tend to have is a lot of toys, often expensive ones. The billionaire Grey can’t seem to afford any. No Violet Wand? No bondage furniture? Not even any bondage tape? Oh, he does own a spreader bar, but maybe he should get a real Dom to teach him how to actually use what few BDSM toys he has.
He takes Ana up to his old preserved for eternity bedroom in the home where he was raised by the parents who adopted him. If you have ever seen the Saturday Night Live Short with the song “Do it on my Twin Bed” where they all have sex in their old bedrooms, is it even possible to keep that song out of your head when Christian and Ana have sex there? As soon as I moved out, my father moved in to convert my old bedroom into an office. I guess one of the perks of wealth is that your parents can keep your old bedroom as a shrine even when you are almost 30.
In this movie Ana explains that she left him in the first movie after the whipping scene because “you were getting off on the pain you inflicted.” I know Doms who are sadists and some who are not. But they get off on it, obviously. For some, they like inflicting pain. For others, they like the intensity of the experience that they can give their submissive, because it is an experience that the submissive wants and desires. But it is always consensual and always because the submissive wants it.
Christian Grey is not into consensual. In a bizarre scene, he takes Ana to a salon owned by the woman (Bassinger) who committed statutory rape with him as a teenager and introduced him to BDSM sex. Yes, that does turn out to be a very, very bad idea. When it inevitably goes badly, he tells her that she has a choice- she can either walk back to his house or he will carry her. That is not a choice, and it is not consensual.
There is a subplot where Ana’s new boss sexually harasses her. In the real world, the solution to sexual harassment is not having your rich boyfriend buy the company, and then you the new assistant wind up with your boss’s old job. Has she ever heard of HR?
It does drive me crazy that so many supposedly sexy movies with sex scenes leave out oral sex. They do have a scene in which Grey goes down on Ana. She comes in about a second and it is over. That is not how oral sex works for women. If it happened to a man, we would call that premature ejaculation and it would be a problem, not a demonstration of someone’s supposed incredible love making skills.
In a scene where he buys all of the photographic portraits of her, he says “I don’t like strangers gawking at you.” That is one of the least BDSM lines yet. In my experience, most BDSM practitioners do not have open sexual relationships (although many do), but virtually all of them love showing off their submissives. The submissives dress in sexy outfits, and at any public fetish or BDSM event it is all about display. At a commercial dungeon where couples go to play and use the equipment, Doms love to show off their submissives and their whipping and spanking skills.
Christian Gray is not a BDSM practitioner, but a self-involved sociopath with violent tendencies. The big surprise is that they add a stalker who was one of his former submissives. The real surprise there is that his former lovers didn’t all wind up in a shallow grave in the desert.