BERLIN — Lust was in the air here at the Berlin Film Festival, as Fifty Shades of Grey made its world premiere on the eve of Valentinstag at the Zoo Palast theater (an aptly animalistic name for the film’s primal urges). Clearly hedging its bets against the tittering world press, Universal Studios refused access to any of the film’s talent—no roundtable interviews, no press conferences, nothing except the obligatory parade down the red carpet. This is big business: let’s not discuss, let’s just consume.
So as director Sam Taylor-Johnson wowed in a white backless dress, and stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan followed behind in jet black formalwear (hers a floor-length Dior gown), international journalists had to make do with simply watching the film at an IMAX theater two miles away. “This is just a movie for sad singles who’ll go to a pub and get potted afterwards,” sniffed one British wag as he elbowed his way to a seat. Maybe so, but it sure looked like everyone wanted to get a good look anyway.
The reaction was surprisingly restrained, with only a few giggles sprinkled over two hours and nary a boo to be heard. Either the cinerati were titillated, amused or bored, but they dutifully attended, as will enough moviegoers for the soft-core romance to earn an estimated $100 million globally this weekend. Do opinions even matter? In stark contrast to any Marvel franchise or Stars Wars reboot, where a compelling story and intriguing characters are actually encouraged, the Fifty Shades phenomenon is clearly just a safe-kink corporate brand turbo-charged to sell tickets.
The plot, such as it was, and for those few who don’t know yet, involves a virginal college senior named Anastasia Steele (Johnson) who pops her cherry in an unlikely pas-de-deux with an even more unlikely 27-year-old billionaire businessman named Christian Grey (Dornan). Oh, and there’s S&M. The tamest S&M ever. The most shocking thing about Fifty Shades as a film, really, is just how innocuous it is. It’s Eros by Committee. And it will be a big hit.
As a fitting companion piece, the festival organizers shrewdly programmed another film earlier in the day about another virgin who has transformative transgressive sex: Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato. A chronicle of the 1930s trip that celebrated Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein ostensibly made for his documentary Que Viva Mexico, the cheeky historical drama actually reveals that the celibate avant-garde auteur also had an intense sexual awakening with a (very generously endowed) young man. Never one for modesty, Greenaway stuffs his film with male nudity galore and hard-R shenanigans—even a deflowering sequence that leads to a bloodied sphincter. “If you want to talk about these things, then let’s do it!” said the refreshingly candid Greenaway at the film’s press conference. “Let’s show it to you!”
The 72-year-old Welsh gadfly, who has made a career out of pushing the boundaries of extreme behavior (his most infamous film, 1989’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, earned an X rating for its scatological, erotic and cannibalistic content), easily put the Fifty Shades carnival to shame—and had journalists applauding—with his blunt honesty. “Eisenstein was a virgin until he was 33,” he said. “Isaac Newton was a virgin when he died at 84. But we can now choose and organize our sexual preferences, which certainly our fathers and forefathers never could.” His latest, an impressionistic, kinetic and candy-colored whirling dervish that indulges his keen appetite for the erudite and the eccentric, is not one of his strongest movies; but it is sincere in its intentions and ultimately moving about Eisenstein’s sense of loss when he is finally forced to return to a (then as now) sexually disapproving Russia. “Cinema surely surely surely is all about sex and death, isn’t it?” said Greenaway. “Isn’t most Western art? Let’s make a demonstration of what’s at stake here.”