Unflinching films by an unprecedented number of women are leading the charge for the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year and going for the jugular with hard looks at sex, violence and family life.
Australian actress Rachel Blake (2nd L), director Julia Leigh (2nd R), actress Emily Browning (R) and producer Jessica Brentnall pose on the red carpet before the screening of 'Sleeping Beauty' presented in competition at the 64th Cannes Film Festival, on May 12, in Cannes Photo: AFP
French actress and film-maker Maiwenn will Friday present the third of four features by women in competition at the world's top film festival -- a record number following last year's total shutout of female directors.
Her ensemble drama "Poliss" takes its script from the blotters of a Paris police Child Protection Unit (CPU), offering a grim glimpse at families from the moneyed bourgeoisie to homeless refugees.
Featuring French rap star Joey Starr, the picture observes a hard-bitten team of cops who share strong personal bonds forged in the trenches of the losing war against child molestation and juvenile crime.
Maiwenn, who appears in the film as a photographer on an interior ministry assignment, spent weeks with CPU officers to capture the horrors, frustrations and gallows humour of their work.
"What I wrote was based only on stories I had actually witnessed or on stories the officers told me," she said in production notes for the film ahead of a news conference Friday. "It was a long, hard slog."
A more experimental picture, "Sleeping Beauty" is the debut feature by Australian novelist Julia Leigh and tells the story of a student who fulfils the sex fantasies of wealthy elderly men while drugged and unconscious.
Britain's Daily Telegraph called Emily Browning's performance "utterly fearless" in a film that "titillates, terrifies and haunts in equal measure".
"What a strange, ensnaring achievement, not least for a first-time feature, 'Sleeping Beauty' is: no male director could have made it," its male reviewer wrote.
New Zealand-born director Jane Campion, who served as an advisor on the movie 17 years after she became the first woman to win the top prize in Cannes, told AFP she was increasingly upbeat about the prospects of women in cinema.
"It's going the right direction for women directors," said Campion, who is currently working on a seven-part series for Australian television.
Kicking off the competition Thursday was "We Need to Talk About Kevin" starring Oscar winner Tilda Swinton as the mother of a teenager who goes on a killing spree at his school.
Scottish director Lynne Ramsay said the film, based on the award-winning novel by Lionel Shriver, aimed to look at the responsibility parents bear for their children's actions and the guilt that plagues even "normal" mothers.
Critics gave the picture mixed reviews but hailed Swinton's performance as a stand-out.
"With this film, Tilda Swinton establishes herself as the one to beat for best-actress honours at 2011 Cannes," the Hollywood Reporter wrote in a review.
On Tuesday, Japan's Naomi Kawase will enter the Cannes competition for the third time with "Hanezu", set in the Asuka region considered the birthplace of Japanese culture.
Twenty films are vying for the Palme d'Or, to be presented at a glittering ceremony on May 22.