CANNES, France (AP) -- Like millions of others, Leonardo DiCaprio read and loved "The Great Gatsby" as a teenager. But he says he only recently began to understand it.
The star of Baz Luhrmann's kaleidoscopic screen adaptation, said reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's book again, he came to believe that it was not the tale of tragic romance he had once believed.
"I remember picking up the novel as a youth and being entertained by it, fascinated with Gatsby but not by any stretch of the imagination grasping the profound sort of existential power that Fitzgerald has in writing this book," the 38-year-old DiCaprio told reporters Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival.
"Ultimately I was fascinated by Gatsby as a character. I was moved by him. It no longer became a love story to me. It became a tragedy of this new American, this man in a new world where everything is possible, and at a time of great opulence in the 1920s. He was trying to become a great Rockefeller, a great American, and somewhere along the way has lost a sense of who he was."
In the movie, DiCaprio glows with health, bursts with brio -- and wears immaculate linen suits -- as Gatsby, a self-made man of mystery whose Long Island mansion becomes the epicenter of impossibly glittering parties while he nurses a private romantic yearning.
DiCaprio's the one thing in the film most critics have been enthusiastic about, and he gave Cannes' opening day a big dose of star power as he posed for photos with fellow cast members including Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton.
DiCaprio -- who first worked with the director on the 1996 film "Romeo + Juliet" -- said Luhrmann brought out the best in his cast.
"He inspires you every day in the workplace to not only do your best, but dream big," DiCaprio said. "You cannot get in a room with this man and not feel inspired, not feel nostalgic, not feel like you're part of something special. He brings that out in everybody he works with, and it's infectious.
"He's also not afraid to take on incredibly classic stories that are embedded in our culture and that are incredibly risky to do."
The risk of adapting a much-loved work is evident in the movie's muted reception from journalists in Cannes, and the mixed reviews it has received in the United States, where it opened last week.
But it is a box-office hit, and cast and director all expressed pride in being faithful to the spirit of Fitzgerald's 1925 novel -- despite the anachronistic soundtrack that features Jay-Z putting a hip-hop spin on Jazz Age sounds.
"Leonardo used to drive me crazy -- but in a good way -- because he would say, 'are we honoring that book?'" Luhrmann said. "And that was our singular focus."
Luhrmann is a Cannes darling -- his first feature, "Strictly Ballroom," played here in 1992 and "Moulin Rouge" opened the festival a decade later.
He said he was delighted to bring "Gatsby" to the French Riviera, where Fitzgerald and his wife and Zelda lived "a youthquake" of glamor and decadence much like the one the writer captured in his novel.
"He wrote it 20 miles up the road here," Luhrmann said, "while his wife was having an affair on the beach just down there ... and there was a French airman buzzing their house, who she was having the affair with.
"The thing I think about that is, how much of that pain and beauty went into the writing."
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
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