The 64th edition of the Cannes film festival opened on Wednesday with a black-tie screening of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" and a salute to veteran Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci.
"I declare the Cannes festival open," Bertolucci said in Italian and French, after French actress Melanie Laurent, the evening's master of ceremonies, invited him to do the honours and "cut the ribbon".
Minutes earlier, the septuagenarian wheelchair-bound Bertolucci was visibly moved as he was presented with a Palme d'Honneur for his life's work including "Last Tango in Paris" and "The Last Emperor".
"The surprise makes this even more important," said Bertolucci, who has never won a coveted Palme D'Or despite his respected oeuvre.
He dedicated his award to Allen "who I can see in his seat with a strange expression I've never seen in his films" - Allen looked poker-faced slumped in his seat - and to Robert De Niro, president of this year's Palme d'Or jury, "a big, big friend".
"And then I'd like to dedicate this honorary Palme to all Italians who still have the strength and the energy to struggle, to criticise and to be indignant," Bertolucci added.
De Niro, 67, tasked with his eight fellow jurors to pick this year's Palme d'Or winner from 20 films in competition, was equally touched by the screening of a brisk review of his life's work, from "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" to "The Mission" and "Analyze This".
"Thank you for inviting me here to the 75th, er, 64th festival," he said in respectable French in response to a lengthy standing ovation. "I hope I will do good work. Thank you."
Billed by organisers as "a love letter" to the French capital, "Midnight in Paris" stars Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams - plus French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, cast in a bit part as a museum curator.
The supermodel-turned-singer skipped Wednesday's gala for what she called "personal and professional reasons" - stirring rumours that she is pregnant with President Nicolas Sarkozy's child.
"She's a singer, she plays guitar and she has a theatrical feel," Allen, 75, said after a press screening that earned warm applause. "And so she came in and did her part very gracefully."
Crowds gathered on the pavement outside the Palais des Festivals to catch a glimpse of Hollywood stars and up-and-coming directors filing up the red carpet for the gala evening opening.
A rich galaxy of film stars has descended on Cannes, with the likes of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz - appearing in the 3-D adventure caper "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" - expected in town.
Power couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were also awaited - but beating them to town on Wednesday was pop singer Lady Gaga, who swanned into Cannes on Wednesday to promote her new album "Born This Way".
Fresh work from Spain's Pedro Almodovar, Denmark's Lars Von Trier and Belgium's Dardenne brothers, are among the 20 films that are up for the Palme d'Or.
Sharing jury duty with De Niro are Hollywood stars Uma Thurman and Jude Law, Hong Kong director Johnny To and film producer Shi Nansun, and French director Olivier Assayas, among others.
"We'll be sitting there, watching movies, then we'll figure it out," said De Niro when asked how the jury would fulfil its mission. "For me, there's no prescribed way. We go to the movies, then talk about them, discuss them."
Seven hundred police officers have been detailed to the festival, but in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, security on Wednesday around Cannes - which triples in size for the event - seemed relaxed.
In a salute to change in the Middle East, the festival is honouring Egypt as its first "guest country," and presenting films by convicted Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, made in "semi-clandestine conditions".
Causing a stir among documentaries is "Unlawful Killing," an account of the inquest into the August 1997 death of Princess Diana that reportedly includes a gruesome black-and-white close-up of her dying.Reuse content