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Pouring rain, chilly critics dampen Cannes opening

"Great Gatsby" star Leonardo DiCaprio on Wednesday opened the 66th Cannes Film Festival ahead of the European premiere of Baz Luhrmann's controversial 3-D epic, kicking off the world's most prestigious film fest.

Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Carey Mulligan and a troupe of 1920s "flapper" dancers were among those braving driving rain and plunging temperatures on the red carpet.

Dresses billowed in the wind outside the festival palace forcing stars to hang on to their hemlines.

Inside, Spielberg, this year's jury head, appeared touched by an unusually enthusiastic standing ovation, telling the audience that at 66 he was getting "older alongside the festival".

Earlier, Luhrmann's high-octane take on the Roaring Twenties classic got a cool reception at a press screening, where it met prolonged silence punctuated by some whistles of disapproval and a smattering of supportive applause.

DiCaprio, who stars as F. Scott Fitzgerald's enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby, also led fellow cast members Mulligan and Tobey Maguire for a photo call ahead of the grand festival opening.

Other stars expected at the glitzy 12-day movie fest on the French Riviera include Ryan Gosling, Michael Douglas, Matt Damon and Alain Delon.

Luhrmann's "Gatsby" has left critics in the United States and Britain divided on whether it amounts to inspiration or a turkey.

The Australian director's adaptation targets a younger generation who have never seen the 1974 version, which starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in the leading roles.

3-D effects and a score produced by rapper Jay-Z and tracks from Beyonce and provide the core of his eye-catching, youth-friendly pitch.

After its North America premiere earlier this month, the New York Times described it as "eminently enjoyable" and film website Indiewire hailed a "guilty pleasure, a swirling audacious piece of cinema".

But others panned it as superficial and brash.

"Once his (Luhrmann's) agenda of swooping camera movements and gleaming roadsters and anachronistic music takes full hold, there's nothing left to fall back on," said industry watcher The Wrap.

"'The Great Gatsby' is an immortal American tragedy, but the story's impact gets completely buried in Luhrmann's flash and dazzle."

Rolling Stone was even more blunt, calling the $100 million movie a "crushing disappointment".

Aside from the "staggering beauty of the costumes, nothing works. The actors are buried in the art direction, along with feeling", it said.

"The film looks as stiff and lifeless as a posh store window."

Despite the doubts, "Gatsby" took $51.1 million at the weekend's US box office, reportedly exceeding distributor Warner Brothers' expectations of between $35 million and $40 million.

The film, which is not in competition at Cannes, came in second behind the blockbuster "Iron Man 3".

Figures showed the film had proved popular with older audiences too.

Viewers over 25 made up 69 percent of the opening weekend's audience, according to Warner Bros.

The opening festivities in Cannes were rounded off with a gala dinner later Wednesday for 650 people, including Spielberg and DiCaprio, all happy to get out of the unseasonal pounding rain.

At the helm was Anne-Sophie Pic, the only female French chef with three Michelin stars.

Pic, who works at her family's Maison Pic restaurant in Valence in southeastern France, told AFP she was proud to have been chosen along with the two-star chef Bruno Oger.

Spielberg, who was applauded as he entered, was later seen chatting to fellow Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, with the likes of Julianne Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen and French actress Ludivine Sagnier also nearby enjoying the champagne and caviar.

Later fireworks lit up the Croisette seaside promenade in the upscale French coastal resort.

Twenty films are in competition in Cannes for the coveted Palme d'Or prize.

Among the most keenly anticipated films is Steven Soderbergh's Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra"?, which the director has said he had trouble getting made because it was "too gay".

The film will be something of a swansong for the 50-year-old Soderbergh, who has announced his retirement.

Other big names in competition include the Coen Brothers with "Inside Llewyn Davis" and Roman Polanski with "Venus in Furs."

"Amelie" star Audrey Tautou, who hosted the opening ceremony, said earlier she discovered she had been chosen as the maitresse de ceremonies by text message.

"The offer threw me off balance a bit. I was immediately touched, but torn between wanting to accept and for two or three days wondering if I could do it," she told AFP in an interview.

"In the end I refused to allow myself to be ruled by fear," she added.

The festival is also a meeting point for thousands of executives involved in the less visible side of movie-making -- script-writing, talent management, technology and film distribution. (AFP)