CANNES, France - The Cannes film festival eschews its usual blockbuster kick-off on Wednesday, opening with a gritty French film that marks only the second time a female director has won the coveted first slot.
Normally reserved for flashy hits such as "Moulin Rouge" or "The Fifth Element", the opening selection this year is "Standing Tall", starring French icon Catherine Deneuve.
Director Emmanuelle Bercot, little known outside her native France, is the first woman to open the world's most famous film festival since Diane Kurys in 1987 for her film "A Man in Love".
The pace will pick up quickly over the coming 12 days, with a number of high-octane extravaganzas, including "Mad Max: Fury Road" starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, China's "The Assassin" and Japan's "Yakuza Apocalypse".
The festival has come under fire in recent years for failing to give much representation to women, and this year's top Palme d'Or competition again features only two female directors - the same as last year - out of 19 selections.
They are French actresses-turned-directors Valerie Donzelli and Maiwenn, part of a particularly strong showing for France which has five films up for the Palme.
But women appear to be more central to other parts of the line-up this year.
Legendary director Agnes Varda - who made her name during the French New Wave of the 1960s - will become the first woman to be awarded an honorary Palme d'Or.
Oscar winner Natalie Portman is presenting a special screening of her directorial debut "A Tale of Love and Darkness" about the early years of Israel.
Order comes from chaos
The jury is this year led by US indie favourites Joel and Ethan Coen, who won the Palme in 1991 for "Barton Fink" and the runner-up Grand Prix for "Inside Llewyn Davis" two years ago.
"We love Cannes and the festival. We have come here very often," Ethan Coen told France's Le Figaro newspaper in an interview published on Wednesday.
They promised to try to confuse their jury, which includes stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Sienna Miller and Sophie Marceau.
"We fully intend to give them contradictory orders, and then see what happens," Ethan joked.
"That's exactly what we do on the set of our films," his brother Joel added. "Up to now it's worked pretty well. Order comes from chaos."
They will judge a typically eclectic selection that includes Matthew McConaughey in "The Sea of Trees", Michael Fassbender risking the cursed role of Macbeth, and Cate Blanchett in "Carol", teaming up again with Todd Haynes who directed her Oscar-nominated turn as Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There".
"Carol" is another female-centred film, telling the story of a love affair between two women, played by Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
"Midrange films with women at the centre are tricky to finance," Blanchett told Vanity Fair recently. "There are a lot of people labouring under the misapprehension that people don't want to see them, which isn't true."
Among the highlights appearing outside the competition are Woody Allen's latest, "Irrational Man", and a new Pixar animation called "Inside Out".
There has also been a surprising number of non-anglophone directors working in the English language this year.
Two Italians - Paolo Sorrentino who made the Oscar-winning "The Great Beauty" and Matteo Garrone who made the widely praised Mafia drama "Gomorrah" - are presenting films in English this year.
The same goes for Greece's Yorgos Lanthimos, whose film "The Lobster" sounds like the most bizarre entry - a dystopian tale starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in which hotel guests have 45 days to find a lover or face being turned into animals.