The Cannes Film Festival unrolled its red carpet with a socially minded French drama as the usually glitzy festival began Wednesday on a more serious note after January's terror attacks in Paris.
"Standing Tall," a film about a juvenile delinquent co-starring Catherine Deneuve, premiered as the festival got underway beneath hazy French Riviera skies. Joel and Ethan Coen, co-presidents of the Cannes jury this year, also presented their fellow jury members — including Jake Gyllenhaal, Guillermo del Toro and Sienna Miller — who will decide who gets Cannes' prestigious Palme d'Or top prize.
Julianne Moore, the best actress winner at last year's festival for her performance in David Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars," declared the festival open. The ceremony featured a ballet performance choreographed by France's Benjamin Millepied that was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
Deneuve said the selection of "Standing Tall," directed by French actress-filmmaker Emmanuelle Bercot, for the opening night at Cannes could be seen as "a way for the festival to respond to a difficult year in Europe and particularly in France."
France has been grappling with questions of security and identity since the deadly attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket by three young men who were born and raised in France but motivated by radical Islam.
Although Bercot's film has been in the works for five years, the director said there was a link between the Paris attacks and the movie, which depicts decent professionals — including police, court and prison staff — working to help a delinquent youth (Rod Paradot) get his life back on track.
The three Paris attackers who were killed by police in January "were not protected, they were not educated," said Bercot. "So the film does provide an answer, in a sense. It shows what work can be done."
"Standing Tall" received a lukewarm response from critics, but even that was an improvement over last year's glamorous but immediately panned "Grace of Monaco," a Grace Kelly drama starring Nicole Kidman.
Bercot received a standing ovation at the opening ceremony. She is only the second woman director to open the Cannes Film Festival, which has sometimes been chided for a dearth of female filmmakers — a topic gaining increasing scrutiny in the film industry.
"For the selection we pick films, artists — not men and women, young and old," Thierry Fremaux, festival director, said in an interview Tuesday. "But I don't want to say that it's not a problem. It is a problem. We need more women, more female directors, in world cinema."
In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday asked U.S. state and federal agencies to investigate the hiring practices of major Hollywood studios, networks and talent agencies, claiming widespread gender discrimination in the hiring of directors.
Some of the biggest directing names at this year's Cannes are on the jury. Joel Coen, whose films have frequently premiered at Cannes, said the timing was perfect for him and his brother, who are waiting until February 2016 to release their next film, "Hail, Caesar!"
But the dual presidents could mean unusual jury politics.
"We've all been split into either the Ethan group or Joel group," joked Gyllenhaal.
Making a particularly striking pair on the red carpet Wednesday was Millepied and his wife, Natalie Portman, who will later in the festival make her directorial debut with "A Tale of Love and Darkness," an Israeli drama.
Thursday will bring George Miller's sequel "Mad Max: Fury Road" along with stars Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Woody Allen will premiere his latest, "Irrational Man," starring Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix. And the Pixar animation film "Inside Out" will take a bow at Cannes' Palais des Festivals.
Among the most anticipated films are "Carol," a '50s lesbian drama starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and "Macbeth," a Shakespeare adaptation with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.
The first few days of the festival may be marked by art house entries that tend toward the bizarre. Matteo Garrone's "Tale of Tales," loosely adapted from 17th century fairy tales, promises the sight of Salma Hayek eating the heart of a beast. Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Lobster," with Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, is about a dystopian future where those who fail to find a mate are turned into an animal.
Cannes, already a media circus, may well turn into a zoo.