The French haute couture icon Jean-Paul Gaultier is the patron of the 11th Francophone Film Festival, which kicks off in Athens today [15].

Gaultier, whose credits as costume designer include such films as Pedro Almodovar’s Kika, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element and Caro and Jeunet’s The City Of Lost Children, will head a record number delegation of stars and directors put together by the Athens French Institute’s Catherine Suard, who presides over the event and Unifrance.

Gaultier will present a number of films of his selection, will conduct public debates and will be decorated by the Greek Culture Deputy Minister Angela Gerekou for his career.

The delegation includes such names as Jane Birkin and Jean Reno. Birkin stars in several films, among them today’s opening gala film, Joan Sfar’s Gainsbourg - An Heroic Life about Birkin’s companion, the late iconic French composer Serge Gainsbourg.

Reno will attend the closing film in which he stars, Richard Berry’s 22 Bullets.

Nana Mouscouri, Antoine de Caunes, Benoit Magimel, Anne Consigny, Jacques Perrin, Riad Sattouf, Francois-Xavier Demaison are, among the 20 plus-strong delegation.

The particular effort made this year by Unifrance in backing the festival corresponds to the fact that French films enjoy an 8% share in the local exhibition market. This makes Greece the top of all European non French-speaking countries for the acquisition and exhibition of French films.

Local distributors buy 45-50 French films every year. Two-thirds enjoy theatrical distribution while the rest are released straight to DVD.

The 80-titles-strong selection put up by the festival’s artistic director Nicolas Peyre includes such films as veteran master Jacques Rivette’s 36 Vues Du Pic Saint-Loup starring Birkin, Patrice Chereau’s Persecution featuring Romain Duris and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Anne Gerard Fontaine’s Coco Avant Chanel with Audrey Tautou, Xavier Giannoli’s A l’ Origine starring Gerard Depardieu, Laurent Perreau’s Le Bel Age with Michel Piccoli, and Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud’s Oceans.

Also screening are Francois Ozon’s Refuge, the Cannes Semaine de la Critique Grand Prix winner Adieu Garry by Nassim Amaouche, Riad Sattouff’s Les Beaux Gosses recently awarded with the Cesar for best first film, as well as Jean-Paul Lilienfeld’s La Journee De La Jupe marking the return of Isabel Adjani, named best actress at this year’s Cesars for this film.

The films are vying for the Audience award offered by the Municipality Of Athens, sponsor of the festival, and the Jury Prize offered by creations Zolotas to be decided by a jury of young francophone cinephiles.

Among side events are the programmes curated by such backers of the event as the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF) and its Athens counterpart (AITFF-Opening Nights).

TIFF is programming the Zoom Back section proposing four films from its last 50th anniversary issue, while AITFF-Opening Nights hosts a five-film homage to the veteran French master Eric Rohmer who passed away earlier this year.

The festival runs April 15-25 in four downtown Athens cinemas and April 22-28 in the TIFF Olympion venue.