By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated May 14, 2003 01:00 PM

Despite a nationwide transit workers’ strike that has crippled France, the country’s annual rite of spring, the Cannes Film Festival, got off to a fast-paced start Wednesday with a press showing of “Fanfan La Tulipe,” the swashbuckling adventure starring Penelope Cruz, reports Reuters.

The movie will play for a gala black-tie crowd Thursday night, which will mark the official start of the two-week fest.

“I think we need a few more movies like this,” Cruz, 29 (who, for once, did not have Tom Cruise on her arm), told reporters after the screening.

The movie was viewed as an escapist antidote to the recent problems in the world, though Cannes has built its reputation on presenting more serious works of cinematic art. Last year its top prize — the Palme d’Or — went to the Holocaust drama “The Pianist” and its director, Roman Polanski.

In defending Cruz’s romp, festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux tells Reuters, “This film shows that the festival can be a counter-balance to all the troubled times we have seen … We know that thousands of people come to Cannes to share their love of cinema. This film is light-hearted, lively and joyous.”

As for the whereabouts of Cruz’s close companion, the actress said Cruise could not be with her in Cannes, because, “He is working.”

Earlier this week, reported that Cruise, 40, wrapped up filming in New Zealand of his $114-million epic “The Last Samurai” and returned home to California.

Accompanied on the flight home by his two children, Isabella, 10, and Connor, 8, Cruise told a radio station Down Under: “I’m going to miss the fish and chips, we’re going to miss our Friday night McDonald’s you know, we are going to miss the beach at night.”