Woody Allen larger than life at Cannes

— The diminutive figure of Woody Allen cast an imposing shadow over Cannes on Wednesday as the world's top film festival gratefully welcomed the reclusive director to kick off its annual confab of glitz, art, dealmaking and partying.

"I'm suppressing panic," the 66-year-old filmmaker quipped when asked how he felt about climbing the famous red-carpeted steps later that evening.

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AP Photo

American actresses Tiffani Thiessen, left, and Debra Messing, right, accompany film director Woody Allen and his wife, Soon-yi, to the 55th Film Festival in Cannes, France. Allen's latest film, "Hollywood Ending," presented out of competition, opened the festival Wednesday.

A few hours later, he stood fidgeting on the stage of Cannes' grand Lumiere Theater as the black-tie crowd gave him a prolonged standing ovation and he was awarded the "Palm of Palms" � a special achievement award given only once in the past, to Ingmar Bergman.

Allen has long been revered in Europe and especially in France, but despite annual requests, he's never attended Cannes, preferring to stay home and let others promote his films.

Accepting his award, Allen joked about France's fondness for him, saying the French have two misconceptions: "that I'm an intellectual, because I wear these glasses, and that I'm an artist, because my films lose money all the time.

"Neither of those things are true," he said to the laughing audience, which included director David Lynch, the jury president, and fellow jurors Sharon Stone and Michelle Yeoh. Then he left before the screening of his film, "Hollywood Ending" � "because I don't like to watch my films."

Allen says he finally came to Cannes because it was time to thank the French public for years of support. Also, he felt that "Hollywood Ending," showing out of competition, seemed perfect � because it jokes about the very fact that Allen is better received in France than at home.

After years of self-imposed isolation from Hollywood and glitzy film festivals, Allen has emerged blinking in the sunlight this year � first making a surprise appearance at the Oscars in March to support New York City, and now Cannes. But he insists it's just a coincidence.

"I know it looks like I've had some kind of religious conversion, but I'll be back in the house in a few hours," he joked.

Coincidence or not, Allen's appearances are accompanied by a decline in his box office, and perhaps a need to promote his films more aggressively. "Hollywood Ending" opened May 3 in the United States to disappointing results. Opening at Cannes will be a boost to the film's prospects in Europe.

The film tells the story of an aging movie director, Val Waxman, whose career has flamed out so badly that he's filming a deodorant commercial in the snowy wilds of Canada.

Suddenly he gets a big chance, but it comes with a price: His ex-wife, Ellie (Tea Leoni), now a movie executive, is pushing for him to make a comeback. She has a pet project that she wants him to direct. The problem: heading the studio is Hal (Treat Williams), Ellie's new lover, the man who stole her from Val.

Val takes the job, but on the eve of shooting he suffers psychosomatic trauma: suddenly he's blind. He decides to keep his condition secret and keep shooting.

While some reviewers found the slapstick physical humor cloying � Allen doesn't really know how to act blind � many appreciated some of the Hollywood-mocking humor, such as the moment when Ellie tells her assistant to send Haley Joel Osment a note and flowers in congratulation for his lifetime achievement award.

In the end, the movie is made � and it's a dud that leaves critics and the public scratching their heads. But there's a happy ending: France loves the film. Allen rushes off to Paris to revel in his success with Ellie � who he's won back, of course, from the slippery Hal.

"I thought the Cannes audience would get particular enjoyment out of that," Allen said.

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