BERLIN — Fans and film critics battled to be the dominant voice at the international premiere of “Fifty Shades of Grey” in Berlin Wednesday night — and it was the unrestrained exuberance of the fans that won the day.
The scene was apparently different at the two press screenings earlier in the day, after which many critics were eager to pour out their abhorrence — not at the movie’s sado-masochistic sex scenes but to the causes of greater offense in the critical mind — script, plot and performance.
Some traumatized refugees of these screenings stood alongside me at the red carpet outside Berlin’s swanky Zoo Palast cinema, awaiting the arrival of the stars for the film’s international premiere. Their sense of outrage had not been cooled by the chilly evening air.
“It was Fifty Shades of sh*t!” exclaimed one appalled journalist.
Fans vs. critics
But on the other side of the carpet a different story was playing out.
Several hundred fans huddled together for warmth, spurred on by a shared devotion to the books of E.L. James and the anticipation of catching an eyeful of Jamie Dornan, the handsome actor who plays her bondage-loving billionaire, Christian Grey. They had come from Germany, of course, but as far afield as the United States.
A man from Uruguay was in attendance with his wife and daughter. Had he read the book?
“I read some of it,” he told me rather sheepishly, “but then I gave it back to my wife. She loves it and my daughter does too.”
Male opinion was relatively hard to find among a crowd in which women outnumbered men by about 20-1. Some fans had come along as couples, revealing different approaches to “Fifty Shades.”
“I’m Fifty Shades of sex,” offered a young German man, to which his girlfriend countered: “And I am Fifty Shades of romance.”
Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away in the UK, London firefighters are anticipating an increase in call-outs when the film hits general release in a few days. London Fire Brigade says it is “concerned” that the event could lead to a “spike” in people being trapped in handcuffs or genital rings.
Red carpet frenzy
Pandemonium broke out when the stars arrived, as fans went into ecstasy at first sight of their heroes.
The camera crews and reporters bawled out equally hysterically, not in delight but frustration as the enormous entourage of minders and PR managers accompanying the cast obscured all but a glimpse of them. Scuffles broke out between camera crews defending their inadequately-allocated space.
I was wedged between a sharp piece of camera equipment from a rival broadcaster to my left and my CNN colleague to the right — and it was he who inadvertently provided the most jarring moment of the evening, catching me full in the face with the back of his camera as he gamely fought to hold the line against a brute on a stepladder. Not journalism’s finest hour, perhaps.
For Dornan and Dakota Johnson, who plays submissive Anastasia Steele to Dornan’s dominant Grey, it’s been a long road from the film’s notorious bondage dungeon, the “Red Room of Pain,” to the red carpet.
Having been virtually gagged from discussing the movie for almost a year since filming ended, both seemed relieved to be able to talk about the film.
Dornan addressed the mayhem surrounding him.
“We knew how many people read the books and how many cared about the film and we were kinda ready for this in a way, I’m not shocked, I mean it’s a little bit shocking but I was aware there’d be a lot of heat, so this is kinda mad.”
The “Fifty Shades” books have sold over 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 50 languages — the film’s forthcoming Valentines Day release is this year’s hot ticket.
But it’s not everyone’s idea of pleasure.
Voices have been raised in concern that the film could be seen as glamorizing domestic violence. That was denied by the film-makers on the carpet.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson told me: “I think they haven’t seen the movie because I feel like I empower this woman and I give her the final word and the message is very strong and the message is really ‘No,’ when someone crosses the line, so I’m really hoping that people won’t feel that, of course, and that they’ll see it very differently.”
Her leading lady Dakota Johnson agreed. “Everything that Anastasia does, it’s completely her choice and consensual and no person is abused in the movie and I think it’s kind of a closed-minded outlook (to say it glamorizes domestic violence).”
Author and director are reported to have indulged in a few verbal lashings on-set but their creative partnership could tie them together for several more years with unofficial reports of sequels in the works.
Could Taylor-Johnson make those reports official?
“It’s not official, no, but they are waiting to see how this does, so you can imagine it might do well enough for them to consider it.”
Box office upbeat
At the box office, first signs indicate that it might indeed do well.
Some online ticket sites have reported record advance sales for an R-rated movie, with a $60 million opening weekend predicted.
It will likely fare less well with most critics.
During the screening which followed the red carpet there were several muted expressions of derision but they were more than matched by applause.
Unscheduled moments of laughter punctuated Grey’s post-coital visits to the piano but there were also moments of well-crafted mirth, notably a scene in which Christian and Anastasia sit at opposite ends of a business meeting room table and discuss the contract intended to govern their relationship.
A series of kinky clauses are discussed with admirably straight faces as Ana instructs Christian to strike out those concerning some more extreme sexual acts.
It’s one of several scenes which support Taylor-Johnson’s claim to have empowered her heroine.
Sexy, but not that sexy
Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia may not hold the key to the cuffs but she does hold the key to the relationship and what she may or may not consent to. The sex scenes account for little more than ten minutes in a film approaching two hours and I’d be surprised if many considered them shocking.
One scene involving the erotic deployment of an ice cube could have been cut straight out of “9 1/2 Weeks,” that other notorious S&M movie which starred Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke, whose character would have kicked Christian Grey’s butt.
We do get to see the Grey butt in action, but no full-frontal nudity, a modesty which is not afforded to Dakota Johnson.
Sure it has its cheesy moments and its flaws — but it’s not aimed at winning Best Picture. (“American Sniper” on the other hand won a nomination despite its shockingly obvious fake baby scene). Just as the books have been derided for literary inadequacies there’s plenty here to allow critics to take pot-shots.
But if you’re a fan of the books, chances are you may well love it. And when a movie becomes an “event movie,” drawing crowds in vast numbers for a fun night out, the cheers of “Fifty Shades” fans may effectively pop a gag into the mouth of the most po-faced critic.