The Cannes Film Festival opened on Wednesday with a sweet-natured family romp by Wes Anderson, as women jurors spoke up to quash a row over the all-male line-up for the competition.
The red-carpet premiere of Anderson's bittersweet teen elopement fantasy "Moonrise Kingdom" kicked off 12 days of screenings, deal-making and champagne-fuelled parties on the French Riviera.
The film is the first of 22 vying for the Palme d'Or top prize
"The Artist" actress Berenice Bejo officially cut the ribbon on the world cinema showcase together with "Moonrise Kingdom" director Anderson, his teen actors and grown-up stars Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray.
Earlier Jessica Chastain and Eva Longoria shimmied up the steps of the seafront festival palace, first of a glamorous roll-call of stars expected in town including Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard and Kylie Minogue.
But the jury led by Italian film-maker Nanni Moretti came in for a grilling over the lack of women behind the camera this year, with none in the main competition and just two in Cannes' new talent section "Un Certain Regard".
British director and juror Andrea Arnold told a news conference it was "a pity and a great disappointment" that so few women went into film-making, but argued that Cannes simply "represents how it really is out there in the world".
She said she herself would "hate" to be invited on grounds of gender.
"I would only want my film to be selected for the right reasons -- not out of charity because I'm female or anything," said Arnold, whose first two feature films -- "Red Road" and "Fish Tank" -- both won the Cannes jury prize.
Arnold's fellow juror Diane Kruger also denied any sexism at Cannes: "On the contrary, my impression is that women are welcome here. It just so happens that there aren't any this year."
New Zealand's Jane Campion is the only woman to have won the Palme d'Or, for "The Piano" in 1993, but last year's festival raised hopes of a breakthrough, with an unprecedented four women in competition.
Directors running for the top award this year include David Cronenberg, Ken Loach and Michael Haneke, Jacques Audiard, Abbas Kiarostami and Walter Salles.
Thursday will see Jacques Audiard, France's master of the edgy thriller genre, wade in as the first heavy-hitter in competition with "Rust and Bone", starring Cotillard as a killer-whale trainer hit by tragedy.
Politics will also be charging into Cannes with "After the Battle" by Egypt's Yousry Nasrallah, about the Arab Spring.
This year's selection is heavy in American storylines, with Australians John Hillcoat and Andrew Dominik bringing two star-studded US-set works: the bootlegging drama "Lawless" and the mobster flick "Killing Them Softly".
Brazil's Salles has adapted Jack Kerouac's cult novel "On the Road", one of Cannes 2012's most keenly-awaited entries starring Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst.
And Canada's Cronenberg brings Manhattan thriller "Cosmopolis", adapted from Don DeLillo's novel and starring Pattinson as a billionaire asset manager.
Two US mavericks are also running for Cannes gold: Lee Daniels with "The Paperboy" about a reporter investigating a death row case, and Jeff Nichols, whose "Mud", about two teenage boys and a fugitive, was a surprise entry.
Among the European giants, Austria's Haneke will show "Amour" (Love), starring Isabelle Huppert as the daughter of a woman who suffers a stroke.
Britain's Loach returns for the 17th time with the comedy "The Angel's Share", about ex-offenders who turn to whisky-making.
Romania's Cristian Mungiu, who scooped the 2007 Palme for a Communist-era abortion drama, is back with "Beyond the Hills" -- inspired by the story of two orphans and an exorcism, while Italian Matteo Garrone takes on TV culture with "Reality".
Asia gets a look-in with two South Koreans: Im Sang-soo with erotic thriller "Taste of Money", and Hong Sang-soo with "In Another Country".
And Palme-winning Iranian Kiarostami returns at 71 with "Like Someone in Love", a Japan-set tale about a student who works as a prostitute.
Last year's jury chaired by Robert De Niro crowned Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" starring Pitt and Sean Penn.
Cannes will also play host to the usual publicity pranks -- starting Wednesday with a seafront stunt by British comic Sacha Baron Cohen, in character on camel back as his zany alter ego Admiral General Aladeen, star of his new film "The Dictator".