Facing persistent criticism in recent years for a pronounced lack of women in its lineup, the organizers of the Cannes Film Festival—the most prestigious in the world—sought to turn the tide this year. Planners partnered with a new festival sponsor to host panels and parties aimed at showcasing women; the festival, for only the second time in its history, opened with a film by a women; a lifetime achievement award was presented to French auteur Agnès Varda; and throughout the event, countless films featured stories about women.

So it’s no surprise that the last thing Cannes festival chief Thierry Frémaux wanted to be talking about at the midpoint of this year’s event was the festival’s red-carpet dress code. Yet when women reported being turned away from glitzy gala screenings in the festival’s Grand Lumière Theater for not wearing high-heeled shoes, word spread quickly, caught fire, and redirected the spotlight back on the dearth of women who have competed for the annual Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize. Only one woman has ever won the coveted award, Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993, an honor her film shared that year with Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine.

Women in cinema have long been emblems of the Cannes Film Festival, but iconic images from the event are more likely to feature starlets on the beach mugging for paparazzi or famous actresses walking the red carpet, than standing at the top of the stairs leading a film’s team as the director of a movie.

Criticism of the Cannes Film Festival for this fact has intensified over the past five years. While four films by women were featured in competition in 2011 (Naomi Kawase’s Hanezu, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, Maïwenn’s Polisse, and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin), the following year there were no films by women vying for the Palme d’Or. 2013 saw just one film directed by a woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s A Castle in Italy) and last year there were two (Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders and Kawase's Still the Water). This year featured Valerie Donzelli’s Marguerite and Julien and Maïwenn’s Mon Roi in competition.

“The festival is a target because it is an institution, like the Tour de France,” festival head Thierry Frémaux conceded at a special event on Thursday, near the end of the festival, and admitted that the persistent talk about the topic has made him a little furious. Yet sitting inside a well-appointed penthouse suite atop the Majestic Hotel overlooking the Palais des Festivals and its infamous red carpet, he embraced the topic of women during an invitation-only conversation with a few dozen festival supporters, sponsors, and journalists.

“We at the festival are very happy that this debate has been started. I wanted to talk about all of this,” Frémaux began. He spoke of the festival trying to take a leadership role on the matter in partnership with inaugural festival sponsor Kering (a luxury-brands retail holding company) and its new Women in Motion program. During the festival, they hosted intimate daily conversations aimed at spurring the discussion about women in cinema to raise awareness and instigate debate; earlier in the week, a gala celebration honored actors Jane Fonda and Olivia de Havilland as well as producer Megan Ellison. Frémaux blamed the red carpet rejections earlier in the week on an overzealous security guard and reiterated: “If there’s a place where women are welcome, it’s here in Cannes.”

Frances McDormand in conversation as part of Kering's “Women in Motion.” Photo credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images for Kering

Trying not to be distracted by the buzz about women’s shoes, Frémaux—the self-proclaimed son of a feminist—cautioned that women wouldn’t want to be included in Cannes merely because they are female. He cited Andrea Arnold, a festival jury member in 2012 and filmmaker in competition with Fish Tank in 2009 and Red Road in 2006. “I would absolutely hate it if my film got selected because I was a woman,” Arnold said at the festival’s opening press conference three years ago. “I would only want my film to be selected for the right reasons and not out of charity because I am female.”

That said, in 2012 the festival opened under the pressure of a letter of protest published in French newspaper Le Monde at the beginning of the event that was signed by French female filmmakers decrying the lack of women in competition that year. Arnold’s subsequent comments at that 2012 press conference remain as relevant as ever.

“It’s true the world over, and in the world of film, that there are just not many women film directors, and I guess Cannes is a small pocket that represents how it is out there in the world, and that’s a great pity and a great disappointment,” Arnold continued. “Because I think women are obviously half of the population and have voices and things to say about life and the world that probably would be good for all of us to hear.”

Three years later, Frémaux’s concluding remarks at the Women in Motion conversation echoed Arnold’s thoughts opening Cannes's 65th edition.

“It is true that the place of women in cinema is not large enough,” Frémaux said on Thursday, but, he added, “If there is a place where women are welcomed and celebrated, this is it. Cannes is just a part of the chain—it is not the only link.”

Observers, longtime attendees, and those involved in running this year’s festival sounded optimistic but also realistic about the prospects for women in film culture in the wake of this year’s festival.

“Worldwide, cinema remains massively a male world, even if it is slowly changing,” noted French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon, who moderated Women in Motion events during this year’s festival. In remarks via email after the festival, Frodon noted that the Cannes Film Festival’s initiatives this year were welcome and necessary. “It clearly appeared in 2015 that a whole strategy has been undertaken,” Frodon, a contributor to Slate, former editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, columnist for Le Monde, wrote, “if not to promote equality between men and women, at least to diminish the pressure on the festival in this respect.”

Frodon noted that the scrutiny of the festival three years ago when no women were in competition was a crucial moment and gave those critical of the festival a wedge. He observed that the attention led festival organizers to bring back Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion last year, this time as President of the Palme d'Or jury.

“The issue deserves to be addressed, though it should involve more constant strategies, in the long term,” Frodon said. “To quote the title of the wonderful Philippe Garrel film that opened the Directors’ Fortnight, the shadow of women was on the Croisette this year. It’s not enough, but it’s a beginning.”

Cannes Film Festival head Thierry Frémaux. Photo credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images for Kering

Over the course of the week, via social media, producer Christine Vachon’s combat boots became an iconic representation of the struggle women face within film culture. She tweeted a photo of the women’s combat boots she wore to the red carpet premiere of the Cannes competition entry that she produced, Carol. While other women were stopped that night for inappropriate footwear, Vachon confidently strode up the red steps of the Palais as a guest of honor.

The producer, herself also a film instructor and author, is this year is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her New York based production company Killer Films with business partner Pam Koffler. In a phone call after the festival, Vachon said that women are making strides but still have a ways to go in film. She noted that female directors and producers, as hard as it is to for them to make it in film, seem to be seizing greater power these days creating content for other platforms (on television or for digital outlets like Netflix and Amazon).

“It's hard when you are at this celebration of cinema to really start talking about the fact that all these fascinating stories and creators are going to the smaller screen. But they are and that's where a lot of women’s stories go,” Vachon noted. “It’s an interesting time in terms of content creation. If we parse it into just film and then everything else, it doesn’t look good, but if we open up the door and look at interesting content that is being steered by a lot of women on a lot different platforms, then it looks a little better.”

Actress Frances McDormand echoed Vachon’s comments about looking at the wider world of content for various platforms when considering the impact that women and stories about women are having on the culture. There’s simply more acceptance of diverse stories in television than on the larger cinema screen, she noted.

“We don’t really need a lot of initiatives for females in film. What we need is money. We need to talk about is the fact that more filmmakers need to be given the chance to make their films whether they are male or female,” McDormand explained at her Women in Motion talk last week. “At least in American cinema it’s the cable networks, they’re the ones that are putting money behind a wider range of filmmakers whether they be male or female. We don’t need help, we need money, we need platforms. We need voices but we don’t need help.”

On the festival’s closing night, Vachon and Todd Haynes were called back to Cannes because Carol, written and produced by as well starring women, won an award for Rooney Mara’s performance in the adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, sharing the honor with opening-night director Emmanuelle Bercot for her role in Maïwenn’s Mon Roi. This year, no other women were singled out for awards at the end of the festival.

In addition to Carol, though, women figured prominently in a number of acclaimed festival films even when the movies were directed by men. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, from Japan, looks at the lives of a family of four women in Japan, while Hou Hsiao-hsien showcases a young woman at the center of its wuxia story about a girl abducted at a young age and trained to be killer. Nanni Moretti's My Mother looked at the ailing parent of a film director, and Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart tracked a woman at the center of a love triangle that spans decades.

Outside of the main competition, the two big films from Hollywood were driven by strong female characters. George Miller’s latest Mad Max movie features Charlize Theron at the center of the action, while Pete Docter’s new Pixar film, Inside Out, is built around a girl growing up and coming to terms with her own feelings. The screenings of both films in Cannes came as a film directed by a women, Elizabeth Banks’s Pitch Perfect 2, led the box office stateside. The news reverberated at the festival as a sign of potential for films driven by women to female moviegoers.

Some in the media branded 2015 the Year of the Woman in Cannes because of the extra focus on the female presence at the festival. But the label also made many bristle throughout the event.

“You hope it’s not just a year. That it’s not just some sort of fashionable moment,” actress Cate Blanchett, a star of Carol, offered when asked about the label at the film’s press conference. “But the more rich and diverse the stories are, the better it serves audiences both male and female.”

Jane Campion, Jury Head of the main competition at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival

Blanchett added that the gender imbalance remains a vital topic that needs to be discussed. “It’s important to keep talking about it. It fell off the agenda and I think we lost a lot of ground.”

Other attendees and those in the industry agreed, noting that the answers are too complex for hashtags that can quickly fade once a moment passes. The proof will be seen once the long-term impact of the initiatives can be evaluated.

“I definitely think it’s true that ‘Year of the Woman’ gestures are completely outdated and represent more of an effort to mask the essential nature of women in the field than anything else (an old establishment trick to keep ‘minority’ groups in their place),” Rajendra Roy, the chief film curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, cautioned in an email exchange after the festival. Lizzie Francke from the British Film Institute in London concurred.

“I agree with Blanchett: while we still need to highlight the issue of women in film, it can't just be a Cannes moment but in deeply rooted work that follows from confidence building and education in teen girls onwards through the examining what is going on at entrance level to the industry and in its training grounds,” she wrote in an email exchange this week.

A producer, former film festival chief, and critic, Francke wrote the 1994 book Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood and was supportive of this year’s efforts in Cannes but also cautious. She noted that her book concluded with a look at the so-called “Year of the Woman” that took place at the Oscars back in 1993 in the wake of Thelma & Louise: “It felt like a marketing moment courtesy of the Academy rather than something really substantial and it has made me weary of all such moments since. Women are not a brand to be marketed (though I would love to see the Amy Schumer sketch in which a bunch of male ad execs think about how to rebrand the concept of ‘woman’ to make it a sexier sell).”

Francke said that initiatives like Women in Motion come from a good place and help the profile of the cause, but that it’s important to look at what is happening on the ground and over time.

“Film is still coded male as a profession for off screen talent with women providing the on screen glamour,” she added. “There is still so much more work to do to encourage young women to think that they can be directors, DoPs, gaffers, sparks—that they can do the heavy lifting metaphorically and literally.”

Michael Phillips, film critic for the Chicago Tribune, in a final dispatch from the festival this year, returned to the image of those iconic shoes worn on the red carpet by Carol producer Christine Vachon.

“This, in retrospect, was the quintessential photo of this year’s Cannes, an emblem of rebellion the festival needed, as well as a reminder that the answer to gender inequity problems is simply more boots on the ground, figurative or literal, worn by those customarily shut out of their share of the stories being told,” Phillips wrote.

Many voiced that the conversation about these issues needs to continue at a deeper level and must be looked at in the context of broader issues at other times of the year.

“Cannes is but a mirror,” Thierry Frémaux said at the Women in Motion conversation near the end of this year’s festival.

Frémaux advocated that now that the festival is over, this discussion about women in film culture must continue to be explored and discussed it should also involve an examination of the lack of women at the Academy Awards and at other high-profile film events and festivals, he said.

“The debate always takes place around May. Why not talk about this issue in November. I’m happy to be insulted, I'm used to it. We must ensure that this debate goes forward. My dream is to have a film festival without knowing the gender of who has made the film,” Frémaux said, “For me this issue of gender equality is an issue for society beyond the Cannes Film Festival. This issue should exist everywhere, the issue should receive more attention.”

“I hope in five to 10 years we will show some results,” Frémaux said. “We must not talk about this only at the time of the film festival.”

Slideshow photo: Palais Des Festivals in Cannes. Credit: Eugene Hernandez