CANNES, France – Stars, fans and industry suits massed in the palm-lined city of Cannes for Wednesday's launch of its glitzy film festival, a mix of big-money and arthouse with a heavy topical tone this year.
As rain clouds gave way to bright sunshine, celebrity-spotters set up deck-chairs opposite the waterfront palace, the main hub of a festival which this year will probe subjects such as the financial crisis and the Iraq war.
Diggers shifted sand on the beach where industry reps set up tents to flog their films and workers prepared the palace steps to roll out the red carpet for the likes of Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.
The two star actors of "Robin Hood", which starts the 63rd festival Wednesday night, are among forces summoned to draw financial clout for the huge film fair, though critics judged this year's line-up less A-list than usual.
Instead, besides "Robin Hood" and Oliver Stone's "Wall Street 2" which screen out of competition, major arthouse and independent names dominate the billing, such as Iran's Abbas Kiarostami and Britain's Ken Loach.
Loach, who scooped the Golden Palm top prize at Cannes in 2006, made a late entry on Monday into this year's race with "Route Irish", a movie about security contractors in the Iraq war.
The only US film in competition for the Palm this year, "Fair Game" by "The Bourne Identity" director Doug Liman, looks at the former US government's bid to smear CIA agent Valerie Plame during the fallout from the invasion.
Out of competition, American Charles Ferguson examines the financial meltdown in his documentary "Inside Job". He made his mark in 2007 with "No End In Sight", a scathing post-mortem of the US occupation of Iraq.
Among offerings from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, several others take on big topical themes -- not least Oliver Stone's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps", which sees Michael Douglas reprise his 1987 role as corporate raider Gordon Gekko.
"Cleveland vs. Wall Street", a documentary by Swiss film maker Jean-Stephane Bron, meanwhile stages a mock trial in which victims of the US subprime crisis confront bankers and mortgage brokers.
Kiarostami -- considered one of the world's finest directors -- presents his first film made outside his native Iran, where censorship has curbed his success. "Certified Copy" stars French actress Juliette Binoche and was shot in Italy.
Cannes 2010 will see premieres of films by Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Japan's Takeshi Kitano. US comic film-maker Woody Allen, 74, and New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard, 79, add to the largely veteran line-up.
Critics have noted the lack of women directors. "I think that's a pity," said British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, host of Wednesday's gala opening.
But she added: "You don't choose a film because it's made by a woman, you choose it because it's good."
In the race for the Palm award on May 23, Asia has a strong showing, with two entries from South Korea -- "Poetry" by Lee Chang-dong and Im Sang-soo's "The Housemaid". China and Thailand are also represented.
"The Cannes film festival is about big-budget films but also remarkable films made in different political regimes by film-makers with little resources," Scott Thomas told AFP on Tuesday.
The prestigious Directors' Fortnight sidebar competition promises some lively fare, with documentaries on disabled Congolese street musicians and ageing rockers The Rolling Stones -- both groups due to make an appearance.
Around 10,000 movie industry types, 4,500 press and thousands of film lovers and celebrity watchers are due at the festival, whose heady cocktail of commerce, glamour and art makes it the top film event of the year.
A volcanic ash cloud that threatened to keep visitors away appeared to have passed over by Tuesday after disrupting flights at nearby Nice airport. Cannes had also recovered from a freak storm last week that lashed the beachfront.