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From left, Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, director Denis Villeneuve, and actor Josh Brolinduring a photo call for the film Sicario, at the 68th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, May 19, 2015.

Lionel Cironneau/The Associated Press

A controversy over high heels is overshadowing the big-screen drama at the Cannes International Film Festival.

At Sunday night's VIP screening of Todd Haynes's lesbian drama Carol, multiple female guests – some apparently with medical conditions – were reportedly denied a chance to walk the red carpet up the Palais stairs because they weren't wearing the required heels.

That set off a firestorm among festival-goers and on social media that Cannes officials tried earnestly to tamp down. But in a year when issues of gender – behind and in front of the camera – are a central talking point at Cannes, the high-heels flap was an ungainly totter backward.

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Only two of the festival's 19 films this year are directed by women, in spite of organizers' efforts to increase women's presence on panels. However, for the first time in 28 years, the opening film was directed by a woman: Emmanuelle Bercot's aptly titled Standing Tall.

On the shoe-height dispute, festival head Thierry Frémaux tweeted on Tuesday morning that the rumour of the high-heels rule was "unfounded" – although individual security guards are known to often be overzealous in enforcing the formal red-carpet dress code at Cannes.

Festival spokeswoman Christine Aime, meanwhile, told The Associated Press: "There is no specific mention about the height of the women's heels as well as for men's. Thus, in order to make sure that this rule is respected, the festival's hosts and hostesses were reminded of it."

The drama unfolded just as Quebec director Denis Villeneuve unveiled his ferociously well-crafted drug-cartel thriller Sicario. The film is the third English-language picture from the 47-year-old, and follows a female FBI agent, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she gets involved in a black ops to track down a Mexican cartel leader. The action is built around a series of harrowing set pieces on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, and the film's moral ambiguity immediately suggests comparisons to such female-centric dramas as Silence of the Lambs and Zero Dark Thirty. On every occasion, the agent wears practical footwear.

At the press conference after the Sicario morning screening, Ms. Blunt described the high-heels episode as "very disappointing" at a time when there are "new waves of quality" in women's movies.

"Everyone should wear flats, I think," she said. "We shouldn't be wearing high heels anyway."

Mr. Villeneuve, the Oscar-nominated director of Incendies who made his English debut in 2013 with Prisoners, said that other producers had been wary of Sicario's script and wanted screenwriter Taylor Sheridan to change the lead character to a man, but he had embraced the script as it was.

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As a sign of protest, he said that he, Sicario co-stars Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro "will walk the stairs in high heels."

Whatever Mr. Villeneuve and his cast choose to walk in, Sicario is undoubtedly one of the festival's marquee attractions. The film is Mr. Villeneuve's second, after Prisoners, with legendary English cinematographer and 12-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins (best known for his work with the Coen brothers). Among the most memorable sequences in Sicario is a shootout in an underground tunnel viewed through night-vision goggles. Mr. Deakins said he looked at a number of other action films "mostly to see what we didn't want to do."

He said that his model was the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, the French director famous for his existential gangster movies of the late fifties and early sixties, "and I'm not just saying that because I'm in France."

Mr. Villeneuve, who first came to Cannes in 1997 with the drama Cosmos, and has since returned in the festival's Un Certain Regard and parallel competitions Critics' Week and Directors' Fortnight, said he never assumed he would return to Cannes or place a film in the competition.

"It's a big gift from the festival to be honest. From a cinematic point of view, this film is very close to me," he said. "I did it without any compromise and total freedom and the fact that that has been recognized on the other side of the ocean is quite unique."

Ms. Blunt, the 32-year-old English actress who first came to public attention opposite Meryl Streep in 2006's The Devil Wears Prada, has now worked with two Quebec directors who have graduated to the top of the Hollywood food chain. She previously made The Young Victoria in 2009 with Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club).

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"They're very competitive," she said, jokingly. "We send pictures of the two of us together: Me and Jean-Marc and me and Denis."

Both Canadian directors, she said, "had a free-spirited way of scenes coming together. They're both very collaborative and they find the beauty in darkness. Obviously, Denis is so much better. I say the same thing to Jean-Marc."

Sicario will be released in September, in time for the awards season. Mr. Villeneuve has been telling people that it's his best film. "I say that, not just because of the film itself, but because of where I want to go and what I want to do as a director, which is to bring people together and try to bring the best out of them."

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