Women take spotlight as curtain rises on Cannes film fest

CANNES, France (AFP) - A gritty French social drama by a female director opened the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday rather than a customary Hollywood blockbuster, helping to underline this year's focus on women.

Director Emmanuelle Bercot became the first woman since 1987 to open the world's most famous film festival with Standing Tall, starring French icon Catherine Deneuve.

The tough drama marks a change from the normally star-studded openers of past years, such as Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby, Robin Hood, The Da Vinci Code or The Fifth Element.

"To choose this film for the opening of the festival is a response to a difficult year in Europe, especially in France," Deneuve said at the press conference.

On Thursday, the festival's big blockbuster, Mad Max: Fury Road, will screen - but even that also puts a woman (Charlize Theron) at the centre of the action.

"The lead of this movie is a female amputee," its other star, Tom Hardy, told journalists on Wednesday.

"It's a total empowerment of women. It's actually about f***ing time."

Shot in the arid desert of Namibia and featuring spectacular effects and imagery - and a seat-shaking soundtrack - the blockbuster imagines a dystopian future world peopled with decadent, savage groups scrabbling to control sparse supplies of water and fuel.

Theron said she was "really proud" to be the main focus in an action film, but not just because she was a woman.

"If there's something really bad-ass about it, it's not that she's a woman and she's fighting on par with the men, it's that she's an amputee and she's figured out a way to survive and not have that hold her back," said the South African actress.

'NO DISCRIMINATION' IN FRANCE

Standing Tall represents the other end of the movie spectrum, a low-budget drama that follows a young delinquent through a cycle of petty crime, violence and juvenile homes.

Bercot rejected the importance of her gender, saying "it's the selection of the film that's an honour".

"I don't at all feel like a minority. At least in France, female directors cannot honestly say they don't have a place or that they suffer discrimination. I know it's different in other countries," she added.

The screen portrayal of women will be raised again this week, with the screening of US film Carol, about a lesbian relationship in New York in the 1950s.

That movie's star, Australian Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett, told Variety that films with women at the centre were still "tricky to finance".

"There are a lot of people labouring under the misapprehension that people don't want to see them, which isn't true," she said.

Later in the festival, Oscar winner Natalie Portman will present a special out-of-competition screening of her directorial debut A Tale Of Love And Darkness about the early years of Israel.

THRILLED TO BE FIRST

A total of 19 films are competing for the top Palme d'Or prize which is this year decided by a jury led by directing siblings Ethan and Joel Coen.

The jury also includes stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Sienna Miller and Sophie Marceau, as well as Mexican cult director Guillermo Del Toro.

Gyllenhaal joked he had been glad to get the call for jury service because he was "thrilled to see films before anyone else... and for free!"

The panel will judge a typically eclectic selection that includes Matthew McConaughey in The Sea Of Trees, and Michael Fassbender risking the cursed role of Macbeth.

Among the highlights appearing outside the competition are Woody Allen's latest, Irrational Man, and a new Pixar animation called Inside Out.

The festival is also the biggest film industry get-together of the year, with about 12,000 delegates from 116 countries expected to attend, hawking their movies and closing deals.

Insiders say this year's marketplace has a number of interesting upcoming projects.

There's particular interest in The Circle, starring Tom Hanks, about a dangerously powerful Internet company.

And Aardman animator Nick Park, the man behind Wallace And Gromit, is also in town, looking to finance a new US$50 million (S$67 million) project, trade magazine Variety reported.

But industry insiders say there is a shortage of massive blockbusters that can prop up the industry.

"Where are the Bruce Willises?" bemoaned one distributor in Wednesday's Variety.