'Fifty Shades of Grey' whips up box-office frenzy

"Fifty Shades of Grey", the long-anticipated movie version of the bestselling erotic novel, began its worldwide rollout on Wednesday, with France one of the first to catch a glimpse.

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".

While the official premiere was to take place late Wednesday at the Berlin film festival, movie theatres across France, Germany, Belgium, Serbia and the Philippines were already screening the steamy picture from early in the day.

Most other countries were to show the movie from Thursday or -- in the case of key target market of the United States -- Friday. The release was timed for this weekend's Valentine's Day and was being heavily advertised as a perfect date movie.

- Mixed reviews -

At one of the first morning showings in Paris, however, several fans of the 2011 novel by British author E.L. James gave mixed responses.

"I was disappointed. I didn't think the actors or the script was up to the level of what was in the book," said one 70-year-old viewer who gave her first name as Christine.

A 20-year-old in the same audience, Elena Radu, said: "It's very good. The book was better, but the film is also good."

Early published reviews captured that ambivalence.

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 a novel trashed by critics for its low literary quality. Its supposedly risque scenes turned out to be "fairly mild provocation in this porn-saturated day and age".

The movie is slick, with many scenes shot like ads for luxury products, and the leading actors and the female director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, proving competent despite the thin plotting.

There was little on-screen evidence of the rumoured trouble on set amid tensions between the actors.

The story focuses on the fictional billionaire Christian Grey, who despite his 27 years is accomplished in a staggering number of fields.

He is the handsome tycoon at the head of a sprawling empire that boasts his name, a helicopter pilot, a virtuoso pianist. And his dark secret is that he spurns all relationships, preferring domination sex games in a room equipped with handcuffs 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, which has sold 100 million copies internationally. "The sex scenes made headlines, but it's the love story that touched the readers."

Although the movie bares much flesh and shows some tame bondage, its 20 minutes of sexy screen time avoid any graphic shots.

It still earned an R rating in the US and in the Philippines, barring under-18s from seeing it. Malaysia has banned the movie.

- DIY bondage -

Some groups against domestic violence have urged a boycott of the movie, arguing it glamorises the abuse of women.

In Britain, a leaked memo to a chain of 359 hardware stores, B&Q, said its 20,000 staff should prepare for an expected onslaught of customers looking to recreate a scene where Christian Grey shops for bondage ropes, plastic cable ties and tape in a hardware store. "We stock many of the products featured in this notable scene," the memo said, predicting that "extra stock" would be required to cope with increased demand.