The festival was opened by Kristin Scott Thomas, the quintessentially British star of The English Patient, and just one of a number of British actors hoping to attract the limelight and hype which usually surrounds the Hollywood stars.
The big American studios are determined to keep an iron grip on their publicity this year, so new blockbusters, such as the Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace and Stanley Kubrick's last film Eyes Wide Shut, are staying away.
One Hollywood executive said last week: "Studios have been burnt too many times at Cannes. They risk badly damaging a movie if the reception is a hostile one, or being labelled an art movie if it does well."
Instead, this year's glamour will be provided by the likes of Sean Connery, whose film Entrapment will be the biggest premiere of the festival, and Tim Roth, who is in competition as a director with The War Zone. The opening film of the festival, The Barber of Siberia, is a British-Russian co-production, starring Richard Harris and Julia Ormond.
Connery's co-star, Catherine Zeta-Jones, is one of the British actors tipped to attract most attention from casting directors thanks to the absence of Hollywood talent.
Ever since photographers gathered around an unknown woman in a bikini on the beach at Cannes in 1953 and made Brigitte Bardot famous, attracting attention has been a major feature of the festival. The year after Bardot made a stir, another starlet, Simone Sylva, went one better and popped out of her brassiere so that Robert Mitchum could adjust her clothing.
With the exception of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, whose film The Cradle Will Rock is in the official competition, much of the festival publicity will focus on British actors such as Rupert Everett, Minnie Driver, Cate Blanchett and the publicity machine in a dress that is Liz Hurley. Bob Hoskins will be there for the opening of Atom Egoyan's Canadian competition entry Felicia's Journey.
The absence of Hollywood blockbusters also means that for the first time in years Cannes has moved closer to its roots as an art film festival.
The list of directors competing for the top prize, the Palme d'Or, reads like a Who's Who of independent film-making, and Britain is represented by the conspicuously arty Peter Greenaway. His film Eight and a Half Women is among the 20 films in the official competition, as is Wonderland, a study of London life by Britain's Michael Winterbottom, director of Welcome to Sarajevo.
Other directors on the Palme list include the Spanish master of kitsch Pedro Almodovar, the American auteurs John Sayles, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, and China's Chen Kaige, whose Farewell My Concubine is a past Palme d'Or winner. Lynch's The Straight Story and Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro have already emerged as favourites to take the main prize this year.
The chances of a challenging and innovative film winning this year look good thanks to the presence of David Cronenberg, the Canadian director of Crash, as president of the jury.
Also on the jury is the unpredictable Australian director George Miller, who made Mad Max, and the actors Jeff Goldblum, star of The Fly, and Holly Hunter, who is best known for her role in The Piano.
Among films not included in the official competition, but vying for other prizes at Cannes, are a number of British films, including Ratcatcher by Lynne Ramsey, the story of a 12-year-old Glasgow boy set during a binmen's strike in the Seventies, The Last September, a film by the theatre director Deborah Warner, about the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in the Twenties, and Hold Back the Night by Phil Davis, about two children on the run.
Other films tipped to generate hype include Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, a thriller based on the true story of a New York serial killer, and the actress Angelica Houston's direction of Agnes Brown, about a Dublin widow.
Palme D'Or Contenders
Pedro Almodovar Todo Sobre Mi Madre
(Everything About My Mother) - Spain
Peter Greenaway Eight and a Half Women - UK
Jim Jarmusch Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samourai - USA
Atom Egoyan Felicia's Journey - Canada
Takeshi Takeshi Kitano Kikujiro No Natsu - Japan
David Lynch The Straight Story - USA
Tim Robbins The Cradle Will Rock - USA
John Sayles Limbo - USA
Alexandre Sokurov Moloch - Russia
Michael Winterbottom Wonderland - UK
Marco Bellocchio La Balia (The Nanny) - Italy
Leos Carax Pola X - France
Chen Kaige The Emperor and the Assassin - China
Luc et Jean-Pierre Dardenne Rosetta - Belgium
Bruno Dumont l'Humanite (Humanity) - France
Amos Gitai Kadosh - Israel
Jacques Maillot Nos Vies Heureuses
(Our Happy Lives) - France
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Ghesse Haye Kish - Iran
Abolfaz Djalili & Nasser Taghvai
Manoel De Oliveira A Carta (The Letter) - Portugal
Arturo Ripstein El Coronel no Tienne Quien le Escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel) - Mexico
Raoul Ruiz Le Temps Retrouve
(Time Regained) - France
Yu Lik Wai Love Will Tear Us Apart - Hong Kong