'Blindness,' spectacle as Cannes opens

Red-carpet is aglow on opening night

CANNES -- The Festival de Cannes fixed its gaze on the world premiere of Fernando Meirelles' "Blindness" on Wednesday night as Sean Penn led his jury into the Palais des Festivals.

While a plague of blindness hits an unnamed city in Mereilles' thriller, the Palais red carpet was seeing stars as the film's talent -- Julianne Moore, Danny Glover and Gael Garcia Bernal -- gave festgoers quite the sight for sore eyes. Cate Blanchett, Eva Longoria and Faye Dunaway added Hollywood glam to the black-tie evening.

Although the official lineup was announced fashionably late this year, the opening ceremony, broadcast live by Gallic pay TV channel Canal Plus, started on time. French funnyman Edouard Baer animated the evening with references to Dany Boon's record-breaking boxoffice hit "Welcome to the Land of the 'Shtis" and a warm welcome in English, telling the crowd in a thick French accent: "My heart is full of love and emotion."

Fest toppers Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux put the Cannes lineup on a diet this year with fewer films in the official selection than usual, and the opening-night festivities were equally trimmed down compared to last year's 60th anniversary hoopla. Opening-night guests were given a taste of the films to come with a sampling of clips from the films in Official Selection screened for the audience.

The low-key ceremony stuck to tradition as the Sean Penn-led jury -- Israeli/American actress Natalie Portman, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, French director Rachid Bouchareb, German actress Alexandra Maria Lara, Italian actor-director Sergio Castellitto, Iranian director Marjane Satrapi, French actress Jeanne Balibar and Thai helmer Apichatpong Weerasethaku -- took their seats onstage.

As the lights went out in the Palais theater, Penn talked about his vision for this year's fest: "We're going to be sending love letters to some movies. Those who don't get them, don't be discouraged," Penn said, adding, "I'm making a plea to those distributors who don't get awards: Stand behind your films as you are now. We're going to do our best," the actor-director said.

A montage of Penn's career was followed by a live musical interlude courtesy of 1960s rock-folk star Richie Havens. Penn tapped his foot to the beat of Havens' "Freedom" as the singer chanted "Freedom, clap your hands," and they did.

Prolific Gallic director Claude Lanzmann then headed into the spotlight to declare the 61st edition of the fest officially open, but not before a lengthy speech that seemed to run almost as long as his nine-hour documentary "Shoah."

After the screening of "Blindness," guests headed to the Carlton Hotel for an official dinner presided by French Cultural Minister Christine Albanel and fest president Jacob.

Despite a modest start, the opening-night energy and plethora of talent set to head to in town for the event look to add weight to the fest as days go by.
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