Sean Penn received the first big artistic cheer of the 61st Cannes Film Festival after he was introduced on the steps of the Palais Wednesday night.

And much of the fest’s opening ceremony turned around the films and tastes of Penn, president of the Competition jury for the 61st edition.

A cheery international atmosphere filled the warm evening air as “Blindness” director Fernando Meirelles and cast members Julianne Moore, Gael Garcia Bernal and Danny Glover greeted the fans and photogs.

Among the celebs on hand were Cate Blanchett, Mischa Barton, Dennis Hopper, Claude Lelouch, Eva Longoria Parker, Faye Dunaway, Gillian Anderson and Petra Nemcova, along with jury members Natalie Portman, Alexandra Maria Lara, Jeanne Balibar, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Alfonso Cuaron. After Penn delivered his opening remarks — asking distributors to continue supporting films even if they don’t receive “love letters” from the jury this year — singer-guitarist Richie Havens made a surprise appearance to perform “Freedom,” a tune he famously performed at Woodstock 39 years ago.

“I was surprised and honored to be invited,” Havens told Daily Variety on Wednesday afternoon. “Sean has been talking a lot about how he is a fan of the song and connects emotionally with it. It’s about getting everyone on the same side of the aisle.”

Gallic director Claude Lanzmann, the director of “Shoah,” officially declared the festival open. In his speech, he praised what he termed “Planet Cinema” for its vastly varying creations — such as “Jackie Brown” and “Shoah” — and the fraternity of the filmmaking community.

Meirelles’ allegorical drama “Blindness” was applauded at its gala screening, though not wildly so.

Soiree continued with the Cannes Festival’s traditional gala dinner, hosted by French culture and communication minister Christine Albanel and fest prexy Gilles Jacob, in the Grand Salon of the Carlton Hotel, with Penn again the center of attention.

The Mouton Cadet Blanc 2006 was a first-night standout.