Women dominated day one at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, with a female director in the opening slot for only the second time, presenting an unusually gritty drama in a slot normally reserved for blockbusters.

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 flashy opening hits such as ‘Moulin Rouge!’ 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.

The film 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 feel I've been a gift in giving such a prestigious slot to a woman. ‘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.

That movie's star, Australian Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett, was asked by Variety magazine if she had ever had any relationships with women. ‘Yes. Many times,’ she replied in an amused and ambiguous response, but did not elaborate. Cannes will be injected with more testosterone over the 12 days, notably with ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron as the most anticipated commercial feature.

The film is half-sequel, half-reimagining of the series on a far bigger budget that the previous instalments. 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. Though the star character, Hardy's Max is essentially along for the ride on an explosive chase movie that puts co-star Theron in the driver's seat, literally and figuratively. ‘I think of action movies as a kind of visual music, and 'Fury Road' is somewhere between a wild rock concert and an opera,’ said Australian director George Miller.

The jury is led this year 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’, 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 $50 million project, trade magazine Variety reported. But industry insiders say there's a shortage of massive blockbusters that can prop up the industry. ‘Where are the Bruce Willises?’ bemoaned one distributor in Wednesday's Variety.