Backlash against Fifty Shades Of Grey as film draws laughs at Berlin festival

A pedestrian walks past an advertising placard for the movie 'Fifty Shades of Grey' which will be screened at the upcomming 65th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin on Feb 4, 2015. --PHOTO: REUTERS
A pedestrian walks past an advertising placard for the movie 'Fifty Shades of Grey' which will be screened at the upcomming 65th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin on Feb 4, 2015. --PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A United States grassroots movement is urging people to send US$50 (S$68) to women's shelters rather than see Fifty Shades Of Grey, while a Midwest child protection league argues the film blurs the lines of what is healthy or harmful in sex.

With its whips and chains and a sexual relationship based on domination and submission, the first film in author E. L. James' Fifty Shades erotic romance trilogy appears headed for the same kind of runaway success as the books that have sold 100 million copies worldwide.

Its arrival in US theatres tomorrow, however, comes in the midst of a national debate about sexual violence and domestic abuse, sparked by high-profile incidents plaguing the National Football League and US colleges last year.

Just four days ago, President Barack Obama appealed to musicians and their fans at the Grammy awards to help stop abuse against women and girls.

To be sure, Fifty Shades is a tale of consensual sex between two adults.

Formed out of Twilight fan fiction, the story follows naive college student Anastasia Steele, 21, who undergoes a sexual awakening at the hands of seductive 27-year-old billionaire, Christian Grey, a practitioner of bondage and domination.

But some activists say the message is still wrong. "This is about a seasoned predator who is a stalker and an abuser and sadist, honing in on a much younger woman," said Gail Dines, professor of sociology at Boston's Wheelock College.

She founded the 50 Dollars Not 50 Shades campaign that urges people to donate to women's shelters, rather than buy a movie ticket.

"It's a fairy story in the sense of it's not real, but in reality, it's a horror story that many women live."

Dakota Johnson, the actress who plays Anastasia, said people should see the film before coming to that conclusion. "Everything that Anastasia does is completely her choice and it's consensual and no person is abused in the movie and I think it's kind of a closed-minded outlook," she said at Wednesday's Fifty Shades premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson said she feels like "I empower this woman and I give her the final word and the message is very strong. "That end message is really 'no' when someone crosses a line," she said.

Johnson generally won praise from those at Wednesday's screening of the film held in Berlin in conjunction with the Berlin International Film Festival.

Grey, who was played by Northern Ireland's Jamie Dornan, was considered something of a cipher.

Much of the audience tittered or burst out laughing at some of its more melodramatic dialogue and scenes, mostly taken straight from the book.

A scene in which Dornan's Grey leaves the bed in the middle of the night to play a Chopin piano piece on his Fazioli grand in his penthouse apartment overlooking Seattle drew a particularly large outburst of chuckles.

Others in the audience found their eyes glazing over at the non-stop macho opulence. The display ranges from Grey's self-piloted helicopter through his harem of cars - apparently every model made by German luxury manufacturer Audi - and the Apple laptop Grey gives Anastasia to his ordering of brand-name gin for a gin and tonic.

Major women's groups have been silent when it comes to the Universal Pictures film. But hashtags such as #FiftyShadesisAbuse is gaining traction on Twitter and campaigners are using social media to organise protests at local movie theatres.

The Minnesota Child Protection League on Wednesday said the film "glorifies emotional and sexual abuse as love" and launched the campaign "50ShadesThePledge" to offer resources for parents to dissuade their children from seeing the film.

British campaign group Fifty Shades Is Domestic Abuse plans a protest at the London premiere of Fifty Shades on Thursday, and is encouraging people to boycott the movie and donate money to local charities for abuse victims.

Universal declined to comment when asked if the studio was concerned about a backlash.

Despite the controversy, Boxoffice.com projects the movie will open with US$89 million in US and Canadian ticket sales from Friday through Monday, which would be a record for the US Presidents Day holiday weekend.

As with the books, dubbed "mommy porn" for drawing a mainstream female audience into the world of erotica and kink, the sex industry is hoping to capitalise again on the spotlight given to bedroom paraphernalia.