Fifty Shades Darker
Written by Niall Leonard
Directed by James Foley
Starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan
Classification 18A; 118 minutes
Below Her Mouth
Directed by April Mullen
Written by Stephanie Fabrizi
Starring Erika Linder and Natalie Krill
Classification R; 94 minutes
The correct amount of nipple erection? The lowest possible angle on the centimetre above the shaft? No, the challenge for erotica is often one of plot. Sure, it takes some artistry to make sex look sexy, but with a couple of nicely toned bodies and a modicum of courage, any director with the … er … stomach for the job is off to a good start. But what pretext is going to bring this couple together and what development is going to pull them apart? That takes some real inventiveness because if they just go at like it bunnies for two hours, well, that's not very erotic.
Both Fifty Shades Darker, the second instalment in the big-bucks Hollywood adaptation of the Fifty Shades of Grey books, and Below Her Mouth, a lesbian skin flick made in Canada on a micro-budget, fail laughably in that regard, and for rather similar reasons. Fifty Shades Darker appears to have been crowd-sourced by a gaggle of Harlequin readers while Below Her Mouth seems to draw its narrative inspiration from porn. Ding dong.
Fifty Shades of Grey – for those who sensibly stayed home knitting when that blockbuster first hit theatres in 2015 – is the story of how the virginal English major Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) meets Seattle businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and discovers what the tortured young billionaire likes to do in his playroom. At the end of that movie, she asks to be whipped, finds that it really hurts her and that he enjoys that. So she dumps him. (Did I spoil things for you? Punish me already.)
The books by E. L. James and the first movie have drawn a good amount of criticism from those who actually like consensual BDSM; there has been much quibbling over whether the annoyingly bossy Christian is using the right procedures for ensuring that Anastasia is always consenting, but surely what really pains the whips-and-handcuffs crowd is the notion that Christian's sexual tastes are a perversion of which he should be cured.
But cured he will be. So, the well-meaning and well-endowed Anastasia is back on the case in Fifty Shades Darker as Christian inevitably returns and she inevitably agrees to dinner. Only dinner, mind you.
James's plot, adapted by Niall Leonard who has taken over screenwriting duties for this sequel, is the Beauty and the Beast story: Christian will be tamed by Anastasia's love while Anastasia will learn to accept his wildness. An age-old metaphor for the sexual balance required to achieve happy heterosexual union, it's not a dumb idea for a story although it is fabulously politically retrograde.
What makes it downright offensive are all the romance-novel flourishes that Leonard and the melodramatically inclined director James Foley, also new to the franchise, bring to glittering three-dimensional life in Fifty Shades Darker. The fabulously rich lover, the insanely jealous rival, the brush with death, and the massive diamond solitaire – is there any overwrought cliché left unturned? The second movie is, if anything, even sillier, ickier and less erotic than its predecessor.
There was an occasional flash of cheeky humour in the first movie: this is Johnson's specialty and the actress can shine in those few moments when she is allowed to mock her own demureness or get off a zinger at the expense of Dornan's dull if pretty Christian. But the jokes feel muted now as the story descends into the cheap psychology behind the sadist's pain. At risk of sounding deeply insensitive – the franchise has also been criticized for romanticizing abusive relationships – let me say that I found Christian a lot more interesting when he was unrepentantly domineering.
Oh, and the sex? Well, there's lots of it but, as in the first movie, it's relatively tame and heavily aestheticized. You'll need to choose your date carefully, of course – not mom – but there's nothing here that should make a pair of friendly companions squirm. As with its predecessor, Fifty Shades Darker mainly wants to have its cake and eat it too, eroticizing sadism even as it denounces it.
The sex in Below Her Mouth, meanwhile, is more explicit and more satisfying, as the prissy little Toronto fashion editor Jasmine (Natalie Krill) allows herself to be propositioned by the aggressively butch contractor Dallas (Erika Linder). And then discovers she has never felt this way before.
What is execrable in this small film directed by April Mullen is the flaccid plot – girl meets girl; boy walks in on them – and wooden dialogue. The script by Stephanie Fabrizi is full of oddly terse interchanges that Krill and Linder deliver with a lifeless cool that feels more under-rehearsed than erotic.
The kicker? The blond and buff Dallas is a roofer. In Hollywood, a girl dreams of snagging a billionaire with his own helicopter and yacht; in Canada, she'll settle for any comer with a hammer.