"Fifty Shades of Grey", the long-anticipated movie version of the bestselling erotic novel, began its worldwide rollout on Wednesday, opening in theatres across France, Germany, Belgium and Serbia, days ahead of its key target territory the United States.
The film, starring Jamie Dornan as a billionaire with a penchant for S&M and Dakota Johnson as a virginal student who falls for him, is being marketed as a torrid touchstone for a generation too young to remember "9 1/2 Weeks" or "Last Tango in Paris".
It is guaranteed early box office success because of the phenomenal sales of the book written by E.L. Smith, a British writer who got her start writing fan fiction for that other romantically fuelled Young Adult hit "Twilight".
Her 2011 "Fifty Shades of Grey" novel has sold 100 million copies internationally, confounding critics who savaged it for its shallow plot, characters and style.
The movie will ride strongly on its canny release in time for this weekend's Valentine's Day celebrations, when it will be THE date-movie to see.
- 'Very soft' -
While the official "premiere" was to take place later Wednesday at the Berlin film festival, early reviews were already coming in -- with many European cinema-goers finding it not living up to its racy billing.
In Paris, 70-year-old Christine, an avowed fan of the novel, said after a morning showing: "I was disappointed. I didn't think the actors or the script were up to the level of what was in the book."
"I expected something a bit more hardcore," said an audience member in Brussels, Jaelle Van Den Bril.
"I found it very, very, very soft," said another, 22-year-old student Sama. "The ending is a bit disappointing."
But many others were entertained -- which will relieve the studio, Universal Pictures, after weeks of online rumours of discord on the set of the movie between the two lead actors, and between the female director Sam Taylor-Johnson and the author.
Elena Radu, 20, and her boyfriend Jugurta Bentifraouine, 26, thought the movie "very good" after seeing it together in Paris.
"The book was better, but the film is also good," Radu said.
Professional critics were divided, though most admitted the movie was competent even if substance was lacking. The review aggregator website rottentomatoes.com gave it an initial rating of 55 percent.
Variety, the US cinema trade magazine, said the "glossy, well cast" film was "not exactly whip-smart, but... in many ways a significant improvement" on the novel. Supposedly risque scenes turned out to be "fairly mild provocation in this porn-saturated day and age".
- Billionaire with S&M fetish -
The story focuses on the fictional billionaire Christian Grey, whose dark secret is a domination fetish involving handcuffs, blindfolds and whips.
Dornan, a 32-year-old married British actor and former male model, picked up the leading role after the first choice, fellow Brit actor Charlie Hunnam, who stars in the US television series "Sons of Anarchy", dropped out.
Dornan's co-lead, as the shy literature student Anastasia Steele who ultimately stands up to Grey, is Johnson, the 25-year-old daughter of actress Melanie Griffith and "Miami Vice" actor Don Johnson.
"At heart, it's a simple love story," novelist James said of her story. "The sex scenes made headlines, but it's the love story that touched the readers."
The movie has earned an R-rating in the US, barring under-17s from seeing it without a parent or adult guardian. Malaysia has banned the movie.
In other countries used to seeing nakedness on the big screen, such as France, the age restriction is lower.
In France unaccompanied 12 -year-olds are allowed to watch it.
Some groups fighting domestic violence have urged a boycott of the movie, arguing it glamorises the abuse of women.
But many retailers were rubbing their hands together at the marketing bonanza it offers.
In Britain, one chain of hardware stores, B&Q, told its staff to prepare for an expected onslaught of customers looking to copy one scene where Christian Grey shops for ropes and plastic cable ties for his bondage games.