CANNES, France (AP) _ 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.
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.
This year, he said, it was time to thank the French public for their years of support. Also, he felt his film, ``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.
``The French have been so supportive and so affectionate to me,'' Allen told reporters. ``I felt that after so many years I wanted to give some gratitude to the French people. I wanted to say yes _ once.''
Organizers heralded his arrival with glee. ``I'm in the clouds,'' said the normally terse Gilles Jacob, the festival president, who said he'd been asking Allen to come for 25 years.
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.
France's fondness for Woody Allen began long ago, with ``Bananas'' and ``Take the Money and Run.''
``I think we in the U.S. find it amusing and endearing about the French that they discover our artists before we do,'' he said, mentioning Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner as other examples.
When Allen appeared in ``Everyone Says I Love You'' in 1996, walking across a bridge over the Seine River with a baguette in his hand and a beret on his head, French audiences roared. Clearly, they knew the affection was mutual.
For Allen's pre-screening news conference Wednesday, the normal press room was shunned for an auditorium. In the circus-like atmosphere, one journalist asked Allen to analyze the French tradition of eating snails and frogs.
``It's like in relationships,'' Allen replied, attempting a thoughtful response. ``Whatever works.''