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CANNES, France — Could Balmain be the red carpet’s next designer darling? Leading ladies here seem to think so. For the opening ceremony of the Cannes International Film Festival Wednesday night, in tandem with the much-drum-rolled (and much-panned) premiere of “The Da Vinci Code,” elfin French actress Audrey Tautou — sporting a new pixie hairdo — chose a thigh-skimming cream Balmain dress in draped mousseline. And it’s said that director Sofia Coppola has chosen Balmain for the premiere of her film “Marie-Antoinette” next Wednesday.

Tautou’s decision to go short was a brave statement in a sea of sweeping gowns, but a practical choice for tackling those fabled red steps.

“I had a rather difficult time walking,” said model-turned-actress Xin Li, who, despite her towering 6-foot height still managed to get entangled in her Hermès gown, which cascaded round her feet in a trail of blazing orange. Li, who stars in “Paris, je t’aime,” a series of 20 short movies about love, said she’s working on a second movie project with director Christopher Doyle.

“The steps can get a little tricky, but if you feel you’re stuck, you just do an elegant little shuffle and it generally works out,” said Rita Wilson, on the arm of husband Tom Hanks. Wilson commissioned a jet black embroidered Prada dress for the occasion. Fudging it seems to be the rule in the Hanks household, if the Oscar-winning Hanks is to be believed. He said he’d place his box-office potential “somewhere between Muffin the Mule and Mickey Rooney.”

Meanwhile, director Tim Burton, all scruffy hair and dark glasses, was perfectly happy to discuss his wife Helena Bonham Carter’s undies.

“Helena is not wearing her bloomers tonight,” he divulged in the theater foyer, referring to his wife’s recently introduced line of old-fashioned knickers.

Having finished with the flashbulb frenzy as one of the festival jury members, Bonham Carter decided to jump in on the conversation. “I wasn’t allowed to wear them,” she exclaimed. “It just wouldn’t have worked with this dress.”

This story first appeared in the May 19, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Elsewhere, a debate started up about who had actually read “The Da Vinci Code.”

“I’ve read it and thought it would make a great movie, so I’m intrigued to see how they’ve interpreted it,” said Alberta Ferretti-clad actress Andie MacDowell.

“I haven’t actually read the book, but I know the story,” whispered a tanned and tuxedoed Valentino, who said he was in town entertaining on his boat. The designer won’t weigh anchor until after the Vanity Fair bash on Saturday night, which will be held in honor of, incongruously, Al Gore.

Marianne Faithfull, meanwhile, who appears in “Paris je t’aime” and plays the lead role in Sam Garbarski’s movie, “Irina P.,” said she was having a festival high. “It’s the second time I’ve walked the red carpet and it’s an amazing feeling,” said the singer-turned-actress, who was wearing Chanel. “It’s a completely different buzz to being on stage — it’s Cannes!”