Fifty Shades Darker (2017): a love letter to capitalism and patriarchy

Fifty Shades Darker is without a doubt one of the worst films I have ever seen. But if I struggled to understand how such a film could ever be released and embraced by the audiences two years ago when its predecessor, Fifty Shades of Grey, hit the theatres, this second edition to the series hardly left me in any such disbelief. I left the cinema utterly disgusted and shocked about just how bad a film can be, but surprised that this is what brings people to the cinema, that this is what women are willing to spend their money on? No, not anymore. We are living in a Trump-era after all, and it is hard not to see some parallels between Grey’s disturbing treatment of women and Trump’s own sexual assault accusations and disgusting remarks about him being entitled to grabbing women’s genitalia whenever he feels like it. If we are living in an era where the worst kind of misogyny can get you into the White House, should we still be surprised that this kind of film not only gets released without worldwide protests against it, but even makes hundreds of millions of dollars of profit? I guess not.

Grey’s luxurious penthouse could easily be mistaken for the top floor of Trump’s Tower (minus all the gold, although there is a Red Room to make up for that; or should I say REDRUM? Because let’s be honest, it’s only a matter of time when Grey goes full-on Jack Nicholson in The Shining), and his naive, if not just plain stupid, young girl undoubtedly bears some resemblance to Trump’s damsel in distress as she, although not from a foreign country, continuously acts like she just fell from another planet. Having been reading 19th century novels by Jane Austen and  Brontë sisters for most of her adolescent and adult life, she seems to have overlooked the fact that two hundred years and three waves of feminism have passed between now and then, leaving Western civilization thoroughly changed in the process. Women not only got the right to vote and semi-equal opportunities in the professional world, but we also witnessed to a sexual revolution that gave us the right to form and claim our own sexual identity. But this all seems foreign to Anastasia who, at 27, is still a virgin. Which makes her a perfect victim for our modern-day Mr. Rochester who manages to win this clueless and inexperienced girl over with his pockets full of money – as well as with (or maybe despite?) his disturbing and creepy possessiveness that gets alarmingly romanticized in what should be a fictional (#FreeMelania inspired) caution tale about domestic abuse.

At the end of the last film we parted our ways with this troubled couple just as Anastasia, disturbed by discovery of Grey’s appetite for “kinky fuckery” (if anyone wondered whether dialogues get any better this time around, I hope this term alone answers your question: fuck no), dumped his rich stalkery ass and went to live her life on her own terms. But just as she starts working at her new job, Dorian Grey bursts back into her life – and he doesn’t need to do much more but to sweet-talk her over one really expensive dinner before she ends up right back in his arms. This time without the contract. But wait, just an hour and a couple of boring vanilla sex scenes later (seriously, for an erotic movie this film did not even manage to get this part right) he romantically proposes to her just as he wakes from a terrible nightmare (because this is how every woman wants to be proposed: during a nightmare that is quite possible a metaphor for a marriage that is yet to come). She says yes, of course – because how could she not if this is exactly what it takes for her to once and for all waltz into the world of the 1%? The contract is therefore hardly  ever mentioned throughout the film – but then again, isn’t a marriage licence (at least for a person such as Grey) exactly the same piece of paper? Won’t this certificate give him the ultimate control and possession of her? Won’t she simply become his property, obliged to do exactly as he pleases? This is, after all, what she is already doing – only to always putting up a bit of a fight before doing as she is told, like this will fool any of us about her supposed strong will and independence. He already has a file on her, has a hold of her bank account, is tracking her phone and even forbids her to go on an important business trip – which she dutifully obliges. So, what’s next? I’d say her getting locked in his Trump Tower (sorry, my mistake, I obviously meant Grey’s penthouse) where sexual assault will become just one of many ways for Grey to unleash his inner demons (but, as Trump would say, no sexual intercourse can be interpreted as rape inside of a marriage, so all is good, right?).

As I have already established in my previous review: this is a love story about capitalism (as well as patriarchy; the two go hand in hand after all), but this movie is quite less ashamed to admit that compared to the last one. A particularly laughable sex scene that follows their reconciliation is therefore not even trying to be erotic, as if the real turn-on for the audience is actually yet to come a few moments later: by Grey telling Anastasia that he makes 45.000$ every fifteen minutes. And because glamorizing the life of the 1% is all this film is actually about, the list of such ridiculous scenes just goes on: Anastasia getting to choose from custom design lingerie and costumes for the ball at the sight of which she looks more aroused than half of the time she and Christian are actually intimate; her learning about his place in Aspen, to which he smugly replies “I have a lot of places” (and off they go, to have sex, because what’s sexier than a guy you’re dating, even though possessing no personality whatsoever but a sadistic need to cause women pain, telling you that he has real estates all over the country?) and her learning how to drive his enormous sailing boat (one of the most ridiculous scenes in this film where I didn’t know if the whole movie crew was just absolutely fascinated by the fact that boats can drive on water or they just really wanted to sell this particular boat to us as the film seemed to have ended there for a second and jumped to a commercial).

There is absolutely nothing that is not to hate here – from awful dialogues and awkward and stiff performances (with the exception of Dakota Johnson who at times looks like she is actually making fun of her own role, which is really the only right way to approach her ridiculously pathetic character), to guest performance of Kim Basigner who probably got paid a nice sum of money to get a drink spilled in her face and then slapped just a moment later in the most fabulous Mexican telenovela fashion. But her presence mostly just reminded us of how much steamier erotic dramas could (and should) be, since her 80’s film Nine 1/2 Weeks, despite its obvious flaws, managed to do the genre justice that this trilogy can only dream of. Because to be honest, despite the misleading Darker in the title, there isn’t one erotic scene that I would not find laugh out funny – including the one in the big finale when Anastasia finally asks if they could make love in the Red Room. S&M, something that is supposed to be the biggest marketing niche of the franchise, is here once again reduced to using a satin blindfold and handcuffs (oh the kinkiness of it!) which eventually leads to sex in – wait for it – good old missionary position. Instead of normalizing the fact that some people indeed practice S&M and that there’s nothing wrong with that (as long as it happens in a safe environment and with consent of everyone involved), this film tries to normalize and romanticize stalking and possessiveness of a man; of him trying to dominate and control the woman’s life completely, in every sphere of her private and professional life, as if thousands of women aren’t endangered every second of the day by men who act just like that. As for the fetishes that should be at the center of this utterly awful story – the only fetish I managed to detect throughout the film was ultimately the one that both Grey and Anastasia share: money.

The Edge of Seventeen (2016): teenage angst movie of the decade

The Edge of Seventeen seemed to have appeared out of nowhere when it premièred at last year’s TIFF, but it wasn’t long before it won over both critics and regular audiences alike. Still, with years of disappointment under the belt when it came to teen movies, I remained sceptical. These past years were overflown with either problematic, body shaming teen comedies such as The Duff, Glee spin-offs (Pitch Perfect) or adolescent dramas filled with overly eloquent and grown up characters (Paper Towns) that were nowhere near to what real teenagers are supposed to sound like, let alone go through. It was clear – the golden days of John Hughes’s teen movies were over and while there were some films over the years that somehow did the genre justice, none of them ever managed to reach the greatness and timelessness of the ultimate teen classic, The Breakfast Club (1985). The genre seemed exhausted and uninspired, with one film after another falling into a trap of good girl vs. bad girl logic, vicious catfights and “who is dating who” premises. And then along came The Edge of Seventeen – a fascinating directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig who depicts teenage angst and overall agony of adolescence with such accuracy that it instantly catapulted me back to my dreadful high school experience – even though it’s been almost a decade since I left those horrible, painful and confusing years behind.

Nadine (portrayed by Hailee Steinfeld who excels in the role) is a tomboyish, unpopular and self-absorbed seventeen-year-old who doesn’t quite belong and is yet to find her place under the sun. She doesn’t get along with her peers, nor does she find any refuge at home where she stubbornly fights with her widowed mother whenever she’s not shamelessly hating on her perfect and popular brother. The only person who gets to see the insecure, imperfect but charming Nadine that hides under the carefully constructed façade of uncompromising sarcasm and biting humour with which she keeps everyone else at bay, is her best (and only) friend Krista. That is at least until Krista starts to date Nadine’s brother. Already feeling misunderstood by the entire generation of “mouth-breathers who get a seizure if you take their phone away” and her family, she now starts to isolate herself even more, using sharp sarcasm to protect herself from the world around and self-sabotagingly hurting everyone around  – only to end up getting hurt the most herself.

Where this film really hits the right note is that it avoids going into a direction of high-school hardships and injustices. Nadine’s classmates are not treating her badly and she is never a victim of any kind of social exclusion. It is she herself that isolates her by rejecting the company of everyone around, looking down on her peers and on all they are supposed to represent. She feels like an old soul, wiser and maturer than anyone else around, but it is all just an act and it is sometimes hard to say if even she herself believes in her supposed superiority. She is simply arrogant (as most teenagers are) and deeply insecure, battling her own demons every step of the way. There hasn’t been quite enough films that would effectively explore the idea of how the biggest enemy of an adolescent girl is usually no one else but herself – but The Edge of Seventeen does just that. No matter what is her external situation, whether she runs with the cool crowd or is completely unknown to people at her school, being a teenage girl is exhausting and horrifying, which makes it quite easy for us to sometimes get overwhelmed by our mere existence. Self-doubt and self-questioning are with us every second of the day, no matter how we pretend to look like we have it all figured out, and while this may be what every youngster goes through, there is also constant observation, evaluation and judgement of others that is mostly reserved for girls – and that we at some point start to project onto ourselves. Or as John Berger smartly put it: “A woman is always accompanied, even when quite alone, by her own image of herself. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.” And indeed this is exactly what Nadine goes through and what causes her so much pain, even though she uses her brother dating her best friend as a catalyst for her angsty outbursts:

You know, ever since we were little, I would get this feeling like… Like I’m floating outside of my body, looking down at myself… And I hate what I see… How I’m acting, the way I sound. And I don’t know how to change it. And I’m so scared… That the feeling is never gonna go away.

What makes this character so authentic and relatable is her constant distress and inherent loneliness. Most of us went through a time when we felt completely and utterly alone, when we believed that nobody could possibly understand what we are feeling, what we are going through. And no party, no amount of alcohol, no sleepover with our best friend could make us feel better and fill the utter emptiness and despair that was slowly taking control of our body. Indeed, Nadine is sinking into a depression (just another thing that hit close to home for me, having been battling depression for a better part of high school myself), but the film smartly avoids lingering on her sad, distressed face or focusing on melancholy afternoons of her sinking into self-hating and damaging thoughts. The direction instead remains vibrant throughout the entire film, bringing to light just how invisible depression is to the world and people around us and how hard it sometimes is for us to get to terms with it; admitting to ourselves that it is really our negative mindset and outlook on life that is the cause of our problems and not our sibling dating the “wrong” person.

But even though there is a lot of depth and sadness running through the film, The Edge of Seventeen ultimately comes across as a thoroughly enjoyable and funny cinematic experience. This is mostly due to fantastic comedic chemistry between Nadine and her grumpy history teacher (Woody Harrelson) who seems to be the only one capable of decent comebacks to her sarcastic attacks and who ultimately becomes the only person she trusts and whom she seeks out when in need.

Although it can’t quite compare to the provocative brilliance of last year’s teen indie, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Edge of Seventeen, despite being a mainstream film, ends up being the best teenage angst movie that the past decade had to offer. And why it will probably appeal to generations to come with its timeless wisdom and relatability, is probably most evident in an emotional and cathartic ending when during final confrontation between Nadine and her brother, she finally realizes that she is far from being the only person whose life is filled with problems and who sometimes doesn’t know how to cope with everything that life throws at her. It is a definable moment – one that everyone of us had to go through – when she has to let go of her egotism, realizing that she is just one of many people in the world who feels trapped, burdened and inadequate. And indeed, this feeling may never go away, but as Nadine’s mother would say: “Everyone’s just as miserable and empty, they’re just better at pretending.”

The Basics:
Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Written by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson
Running Time: 104 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 8

Valentine’s Day: fifty shades greyer, darker and freer

With Valentine’s Day almost around the corner and with Fifty Shades Darker about to hit the theatres, I decided to make an alternative list of films for all of us who don’t celebrate this annual “holiday” that is, let’s face it, the embodiment of everything that is wrong with contemporary consumerist society.

Before you start jumping to conclusions – no, I don’t have anything against a holiday that celebrates love. But I do have everything against a holiday that makes corporations earn billions by selling meaningless greeting cards, chocolates and flowers, that makes disastrous films such as Fifty Shades of Grey break records and that makes all single people feel like they are somehow failing at life.

If you’re here for films such as Nicolas Sparks’s clichéd romantic dramas, young adult love stories such as The Spectacular Now or Paper Towns, British tear-jerkers such as Me Before Youultimate crying out loud classics such as Titanic or feminist (but not really) films about “female empowerment” such as Trainwreck, this list probably won’t be for you. But if you’re up for something different, real, at times depressing and edgy… then there’s no doubt that you’ll find something perfect for February 14th below.

And for all of you who would like to explore cinematic world of unusual, messed up and/or not meant to be romantic relationships even further, there’s an extended Letterboxd list that I made just for the occasion.

The classics

  1. Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)
  2. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
  3. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
  4. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
  5. Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973)
  6. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
  7. L’eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni)
  8. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
  9. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)
  10. Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
  11. Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)
  12. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
  13. Love in the Afternoon (Eric Rohmer, 1972)
  14. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994)
  15. Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight (Richard Linklater, 1995/04/13)
  16. Open Hearts (Susanne Bier, 2002)
  17. Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
  18. Loves of a Blonde (Miloš Forman, 1965)
  19. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
  20. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
  21. A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1946)
  22. It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)
  23. The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
  24. Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)
  25. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

Let’s get weird

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  1. Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
  2. That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel, 1977)
  3. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
  4. Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968)
  5. Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)
  6. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Sang-soo Hong, 2000)
  7. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989)
  8. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
  9. The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)
  10. Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
  11. Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)
  12. Maškarada (Boštjan Hladnik, 1971)

Only for the bravest

  1. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
  2. In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976) – one of the most controversial films in the history of cinema; don’t say I didn’t warn you!
  3. Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier, 2013)

Not happily ever afters

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  1. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)
  2. Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
  3. Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)
  4. Love Affair or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (Dušan Makavejev, 1967)
  5. Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988)
  6. Le bonheur (Agnes Varda, 1965)
  7. Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970)
  8. Amour fou (Jessica Hausner, 2014)
  9. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
  10. A Short Film About Love (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)

Outlaw love

  1. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
  2. Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
  3. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)

LGBTQ

  1. Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
  2. Handmaiden (Chan-wook Park, 2016)
  3. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
  4. Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)
  5. The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)
  6. Maurice (James Ivory, 1987)
  7. Love is Strange (Ira Sachs, 2014)
  8. Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai, 1997)
  9. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013)
  10. Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998)

Anti-Valentine’s 

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  1. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)
  2. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)
  3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
  4. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)
  5. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
  6. Appropriate Behavior (Desiree Akhavan, 2014)