The Cannes film festival got off to a glittering start, paying homage to the creator of "Last Tango in Paris" before sitting back to enjoy "Midnight in Paris."
"I declare the Cannes festival open," said Bernardo Bertolucci in Italian and French, after French actress Melanie Laurent, the evening’s master of ceremonies, invited the Italian director to do the honors and "cut the ribbon."
Just minutes earlier, the septuagenarian wheelchair-bound Bertolucci was visibly touched as he received 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 Woody 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" who starred in his epic film "1900."
Allen’s latest romantic comedy "Midnight in Paris" opened the festival.
Bertolucci then added: "And then I’d like to dedicate this honorary Palme to all Italians who still have the strength and the energy to struggle, to criticize and to be indignant."
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 moved by the screening of a brisk review of his life’s work, from "Taxi Driver" to "Analyze This.”
"Thank you for inviting me here to the 75th, er, 64th festival," he said in respectable French in response to a standing ovation. "I hope I will do good work. Thank you."
Billed by organizers 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 rumors 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 well-received press screening. "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 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" on French television.
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 this year.
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 do its work. "For me, there’s no prescribed way. We go to the movies, then talk about them, discuss them."
On the program on Thursday are screenings from two women directors in competition — Scottish director Lynne Ramsey’s adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel "We Need to Talk About Kevin" and Australian film-maker Julia Leigh’s debut feature "Sleeping Beauty.”
Gus Van Sant’s "Restless" starring Henry Hopper, son of the late Dennis Hopper, will run in the parallel Un Certain Regard category.
Seven hundred police officers have been detailed to the festival, but security on Wednesday around Cannes — which triples in size for the event — seemed relaxed despite the US commando killing of Osama bin Laden.
From left, actors Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, director Woody Allen, French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, and actress Rachel McAdams arrive for the screening of Midnight in Paris and the opening ceremony, at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan).