Besson pic puts fest in high gear

CANNES — Bruce Willis and Gallic major Gaumont stole the show on opening night of the 50th Cannes Film Festival, as thousands of people massed outside the Palais des Festivals to watch the traditional ascent up the red-carpeted stairs that signals the official start to the world’s premier film fest.

While critics had been predicting a chilly reception for the fest’s opening pic, Luc Besson’s $85 million sci-fi adventure “The Fifth Element,” local support for one of their own — albeit a U.S.-based one of their own — ensured that the director came out of the black-tie screening more or less intact.

As for the film’s backer, Gaumont, it managed to set a particularly high-tech tone for the party-faithful by hosting a 3,000-strong latenight celebration in a massive seaside hangar built especially for the occasion.

Although it is widely believed that Gaumont investment in the pic is largely covered by pre-sales — Sony paid heavily for U.S. rights to the Willis starrer — the venerable French studio has a good deal of pride at stake.

Gaumont execs were expressing relief Wednesday that first-day results from Paris were upbeat.

The crowds were certainly out in force in Cannes, despite some of the tightest security festival veterans have ever seen.

France’s current anti-terrorist campaign, coupled with the imminent arrival Sunday of President Jacques Chirac, has police on full alert.

It was no surprise that the official deadline for the closing of the Palais doors came and went with plenty of opening-night attendees still making their way up the Palais staircase.

Star-gazers were rewarded for their patience — many had been establishing their vantage points well before the early-evening screening — with glimpses of Willis and wife Demi Moore, Dennis Hopper, Vanessa Redgrave, jury president Isabel Adjani and jury members Gong Li, Tim Burton, Nanni Moretti and Mike Leigh, Cannes faithful Jeanne Moreau and Tony Curtis, French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, as well as hot French director Mathieu Kassovitz, whose film “Assassin(s)” unspools in competition May 16.

But the warmest reception of the evening took place inside the Palais as the audience rose to its feet to applaud the appearance of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, present to receive a replacement Palme d’Or from Vanessa Redgrave for an earlier Cannes prize that had been stolen.

Noticeably absent from the proceedings was French Culture Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, who still is in the hospital recovering from a knife attack last week.

In a message read by Moreau, the minister expressed hope that he will be fit enough to attend Sunday’s gala celebrations for the festival’s 50th birthday.

Cannes organizers appeared to have decided to reserve their best celebratory shots until Sunday.

Wednesday’s pre-pic performance was a low-key affair, enlivened only by Senegalese musician Doudou N’Diaye Rose and his 50-strong troupe of drummers.

Then it was left to Willis, accompanied by Chiara Mastroianni, to declare the 50th Cannes Film Festival officially open.

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