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Cannes opens quietly

Polite applause greets 'Primary Colors;' Annan makes gala appearance

CANNES — The 51st Cannes Film Festival kicked off with more of a whimper than a bang, as polite applause greeted the opening film, Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors.”

Fest programmer Gilles Jacob may feel he has a stronger official selection than last year, but without the pulling power of the 50th anniversary behind it, this year’s festival opened with stars in short supply.

Indeed, as thousands of locals crammed around the Palais to watch the traditional walk up the red-carpetted stairs, the biggest cheers were kept for celebs with only a passing connection to the film business.

That meant that top model and occasional thesp Claudia Schiffer had the photographers in a frenzy as she shimmered her way into the screening next to fellow catwalker Kate Moss. As for the good folk of Cannes, they kept their biggest cheers for Gallic soccer star David Ginola, ageing rocker Johnny Halliday and actress Sophie Marceau.

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And while ” Primary Colors ” stars John Travolta and Emma Thompson declared the festival officially open, they were largely upstaged by the only person to get the whole house on its feet for a standing ovation, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, in town to mark the 50th anniversary of the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights.

Speaking to a hushed audience, the Secretary General, who is more used to delicate diplomatic dealings than glitzy film gatherings, noted that ” cinema has always spoken out for freedom ,” adding that freedom is an integral part of human rights.

For Emma Thompson, Cannes 1998 is something of a coming of age – at least in terms of getting recognized by the world’s leading film fest. When she first came to the Cote D’Azur, to accompany ” Howard’s End ” she got to sleep in a small Cannes studio. This time around, Thompson is rubbing shoulders with the financially unchallenged at the Hotel du Cap.

Festival know-it-alls took their seats pondering Jacob’s choice of opening pic. Jacob has tipped his hat to the U.S. by programming two Yank films at either end of Cannes, but his own fest rules require a special dispensation for ” Primary Colors,” as official selection films are not meant to have been released anywhere else but their domestic territory and the Nichols’ pic has already opened in the U.S. and Australia.

Such technicalities apart, critics and Palme d’Or pundits are waiting with interest to see Ken Loach’s ” My name is Joe ” and John Turturro’s Italian-based ” Illuminata, ” although this year’s fest is generally reckoned to be wide open when it comes to predicting the final winner.

Hosting what can only be described as a minimalist opening ceremony, French actress Isabelle Huppert paid particluar tribute to the festival’s efforts to support innovation as well as reward past achievements. In particular, she welcomed the creation of Cinefondation, which aims to promote the works of filmmakers graduating from the various international film schools.

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