CANNES, France (AP) — Red carpets are all the same color, but they are not alike. And none equals the prestigious red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival, a rigidly organized gauntlet of glamour, a surreal choreography of stage-managed glitz.
It's a world of its own, with strict rules and tradition, and passage through it is dizzying for even the most experienced stars. The Cannes red carpet, along with its companion photo calls in front of a bank of photographers, creates the festival's flashy French Riviera iconography, a global calling card that rivals the Academy Awards' famous promenade.
The recent dustup over footwear on the Cannes carpet epitomizes the strangeness of its elevated ecosystem. Several women were turned away from the premiere of the Todd Haynes' '50s drama "Carol" for not wearing high heels. When word got out, an outcry spread. The festival insisted the incidents were the fault of overzealous security guards, but even top Hollywood executives have stories of being denied admission from their own premieres for improper shoes or for having a long black tie instead of a bowed one.
"There's a tradition," says Cate Blanchett, who stars in "Carol" alongside Rooney Mara. "There's something kind of gentlemanly about it."
Whereas most red carpets are a messy maelstrom of media, fans and stars, Cannes runs like clockwork. Two or three times a day, a lengthy caravan of festival cars chauffer the premiere's stars down Cannes' main drag, the Croisette, dropping them at one end of the carpet.
They only walk after most other guests have entered, pausing at a few points to pose for tuxedo-clad photographers, who themselves are also held to festival dress code. Then they climb Cannes' 24 steps, entering the Palais after taking a moment to stand and wave at the top of the steps, where they're greeted by festival directors. It's a literal and metaphoric ascension to cinema's regal firmament.
"You climb the steps of the pyramids," says Blanchett. "Usually most red carpets have a lot of step-and-repeat. You don't have to discuss a film before you go and see it. You're at a film festival, so it's about a film. It's not about what we think of the film."
Premieres elsewhere often proceed on the stars' timetable, but at Cannes even the most famous will be whisked through by the festival's many protocol guardians and told not to dally or hold things up with their own photographs. Festival director Thierry Fremaux this year clamped down on selfies on the red carpet, calling them "grotesque."
"It's funny because there are so many rules," says Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who premiered his satirical drama "The Lobster," starring Colin Farrell. "You have to walk in a line. They tell you when to turn around, which way you need to turn around. It's a very funny, happy, ridiculous, strange awkward situation."
The Cannes carpet has become a much-watched fashion runway. Models typically parade before a film's participants, and the dresses of celebrities are followed closely around the world. This year's festival has seen Charlize Theron ("Mad Max: Fury Road") stroll with beau Sean Penn and Lupita Nyong'o recall her Oscar red-carpet glory. Julianne Moore, Naomi Watts, Matthew McConaughey and Natalie Portman have all basked in the Cannes glow.
"In my youth I never paid attention to glamour," says Jane Fonda, who co-stars in Paolo Sorrentino's "Youth," which was to premiere Wednesday. "In those days if you came to Cannes or you went to the premiere of a film in the United States, no one would say, 'What are you wearing?' You'd think they were crazy! 'I'm wearing clothes, what you mean?'"
The formal ballet of the procession has a surreal, fairy tale-lie fantasy to it. "I felt like I was getting married," said Mara of her first red carpet trip in Cannes. But it can also feel like a limelight overdose.
"It used to make me really, really nervous and upset. I just hated it, hated it. It felt so phony," said John C. Reilly, a Cannes veteran who attended two premieres this year as a star of "The Lobster" and Matteo Garrone's "Tale of Tales." ''Now I'm just used to it. I don't take it personally. You want to take my picture because I'm in this movie and I have a nice suit on. As soon as they stop screaming my name, they're going to start screaming somebody else's name."
The pomp has a bit more substance to it at the Cannes Film Festival than most other red carpets because it's in the service, ultimately, of celebrating some of the most artistically ambitious films of the year. Cannes rolls its red carpet out for only a highly select few dozen films each festival, and the majority of them come from the most well-regarded directors in international cinema.
And yet not everyone is so bowled over by the Cannes red carpet. The comedian Louis Black made his first trip to the festival for the premiere of Pixar's "Inside Out." To him, the experience didn't live up to the billing.
"I was a little disappointed," deadpanned Black.
Associated Press reporters Nekesa Mumbi Moody, Jill Lawless and Louise Dixon contributed to this report.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP