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Cannes 2011

At Cannes, the women have arrived Add to ...

"There are days when I want to go out onto the street and smash things up," writes Julia Leigh in her director's statement for Sleeping Beauty, her eerie competition opener for the 64th Cannes Film Festival, which tells the story of a young woman who repeatedly allows herself to be drugged into a coma for the sexual pleasure of rich old men.

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A celebrated novelist ( The Hunter, Disquiet), Leigh's way of smashing things up in her first film is by going in reverse -- taking submissiveness to a horrific extreme. The heroine of her film, Lucy, indulges in what Leigh calls "radical passivity."

"In a world where all kinds of exploitation exists, Lucy says, 'My cheek is turned; test me,'" the 40-year-old director, who speaks in long, carefully thought out sentences, said at the press salon after her screening.

After no women filmmakers in last year's festival competition, Leigh is one of a record four among this year's 20 directors jousting for the Palme d'Or, and three of them have shown in the first two days of the festival. In each case, they have made movies that redefine a favourite subject of male directors: violence.

Along with Leigh's film, which crueller critics suggested put them to sleep, the Cannes audience has seen Scottish director Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on Lionel Shriver's 2003 bestseller about a school massacre, and French actress-turned-director Maiwenn's Polisse, a drama about police men and women working for the French child protection services.

Yet to come is Japan's Naomi Kawase who won the runner-up Grand Prix here in 2007 for her film, The Mourning Forest, with her new drama, Hanezu.

Some critics have speculated that Cannes took its lead from last year's Venice programmers, who picked three women in competition. Or perhaps from the Oscars, which in 2010 gave its best director prize to Kathryn Bigelow, the first time in 80 years a woman had received the honour, and highlighting the stark discrepancy between the sexes when it comes to working behind the camera.

As well as festival programmers becoming more conscious of the gender gap, it's also the case that contemporary women filmmakers are more adventurous in pushing the edge of issues dealing with the body. The most frequent comment heard after the screening of Leigh's film was that no male filmmaker would have dared make it. Too raw, too graphic, too voyeuristic.

"I've thought about that," said Leigh, "And my question is, 'Is it voyeurism or tender witnessing?'"

Though reluctant to explain her work, Leigh cites several intriguing sources for a film that turns exploitation cinema upside down: King Solomon of the Bible, who slept with young virgins; Internet fetish sites of sleeping women; novellas by Yasunari Kawabata and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, about old men paying to sleep with girls, and her own recurring nightmare, after she was "exposed" by the success of her first novel in 1999, that "I was being filmed while I was asleep."

That was the same year that Lynne Ramsay emerged as a bright new hope on the directing scene, with her film, Ratcatcher, screened in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Three years later, she made Morvern Callar, followed by a hiatus of nine years. Part of that was spent working on an adaptation of The Lovely Bones (ultimately made by Peter Jackson). For the last six years, the ebullient 41-year-old from Glasgow has been involved with developing We Need to Talk about Kevin.

Given the subject and "the times we live in, I knew I had to be very bold," said Ramsay on Thursday after her screening.

The unorthodox part of the movie is that it focuses not on the violence, but the family. "[Gus Van Sant's] Elephant is a film about a high-school shooting," Ramsay said. "This is a film about a mother and son." Added her co-screenwriter and husband, Rory Stewart Kinnear: "I think the idea of a mother not loving her son is one of the last taboos, and something people don't want to talk about."

Actress Tilda Swinton, who stars as Eva, the mother who is engaged in a war with her son from the time of his birth, made the point that women directors such as Ramsay are redefining what we mean by violence. "Giving birth is a violent business. It's a bloody business, having a family," said Swinton, who can reliably be counted on to get to the essence of what a film is about. "It's certainly a very bloody business being a parent, and it's a really bloody business being a child."

A similar idea about the violence of family bonds can be seen in the modest French film, Polisse, from actress-turned-director Maiwenn (Maiwenn Le Besco) which had its official screening Friday morning. Based on real cases handled by a Parisian child-protection squad, the docudrama follows 10 men and women who bond, squabble and tear apart their personal lives trying to protect strangers' children from pedophilia and other abuse.

With its sprawling cast of characters and a raw, energetic style that recalls television series such as The Wire, Polisse could almost find a home as a cop series on American television, except that the focus is on quiet violence in bedrooms and school-changing rooms, not the world of flashy guns, drugs and cash. In Hollywood, the handful of women directors are still typically expected to splash in the shallow end of the pool, of romance and comedy. In international filmmaking, more of them are diving into the deeper waters of experience, of birth, sex and death.

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

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