Indian actress Aishwarya Rai and US director Alexander Payne officially launched this year’s festival in a theatre packed with celebrities from around the world as well as film greats, with thousands of fans angling to get a glimpse outside.

“It’s an absolute pleasure and honour for me to declare the 58th Cannes film festival open,” said Ms Rai in English, after a spectacular gymnastics display by a member of Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil.

Ms Rai, a Bollywood star who broke through into international cinema after starring in Bride and Prejudice, sat on the Cannes jury three years ago.

Mr Payne, known for directing the films About Schmidt and Sideways, repeated her declaration in French.

The pair was joined on stage by jury members, including panel president, Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica, Spanish actor Javier Bardem, Mexican actress Salma Hayek, Hong Kong director John Woo and Indian actress Nandita Das.

The first film screened was French drama Lemming, which is in contention for the Palme D’Or.

Directors Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant, Michael Haneke, David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan will present their latest movies at the festival, with this year’s line-up highlighting auteur cinema.

Among the hot tickets are Hollywood flicks such as Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, which is not in contention for the prize.

The much-anticipated War of the Worlds, a remake of the HG Wells classic directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, will be screened, however is not due for general release until late July.

Also to be screened is an Iraqi film that takes a jab at European opposition to the US-led invasion is in competition for the prize, the first time ever an Iraqi film has appeared in the festival’s official selection.

Beyond the glamour and the hype and the parallel competitions taking place in the Palme d’Or’s shadow, there is also the business side of Cannes.

In the market section of the festival, some 35,000 movie industry types are gathered to buy, sell and plan celluloid releases.