Stars descend on French Riviera for Cannes film festival

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The Independent Culture

Hollywood A-listers rubbed shoulders with up-and-coming directors on Wednesday as the Cannes film festival got underway on the sun-kissed French Riviera.

Woody Allen's latest romantic comedy "Midnight in Paris" was opening the 11-day event at a black-tie screening at sundown that already has tongues wagging.

Billed by organisers as "a love letter" to the French capital, it stars Owen Wilson, Kathy Bates and Marion Cotillard - but all eyes are on French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, cast in a bit part as a museum curator.

But the supermodel-turned-singer has revealed that she is skipping the gala screening for "personal and professional reasons" - stirring rumours that she is pregnant with President Nicolas Sarkozy's child.

Crowds gathered in the sunshine outside the Palais des Festivals for a late-morning press screening, some holding handmade signs asking if anyone might kindly slip them an invitation into the opening gala soiree.

Italian cinema legend Bernardo Bertolucci, whose classics include "Last Tango in Paris" and "The Last Emperor," was meanwhile being presented on Wednesday with an honorary Palme d'Or for his life's work.

Organisers say the laurel will from this year be presented annually to a cinema legend.

A rich galaxy of film stars is converging 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 on the red carpet.

Power couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were also due in town, along with pop star Lady Gaga - not for a movie, but to promote her new album "Born This Way" on a French television chat show.

On the serious side of the festival, 20 pictures, including fresh work from Spain's Pedro Almodovar, Denmark's Lars Von Trier and Belgium's Dardenne brothers, are up for the highly coveted Palme d'Or.

Oscar-winner Robert De Niro, who starred in past Palme d'Or winners "Taxi Driver" and "The Mission", is steering the jury that includes Hollywood stars Uma Thurman and Jude Law, Hong Kong director Johnny To and film producer Shi Nansun, and French director Olivier Assayas.

Seven hundred police officers have been detailed to the festival, where the killing of Osama bin Laden has ramped up security concerns.

But security on Wednesday around Cannes - which triples in size during the festival - appeared casual, both at the Festival des Palais and at nearby luxury hotels, villas, yachts and other party venues.

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.