Female directors are in the frame with Sleeping Beauty and We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Strange scheduling at Cannes this year saw three of the four films by women directors in the competition play as the first three films in order. First off was Julia Leigh’s directorial debut Sleeping Beauty and second was Lynne Ramsay’s long awaited third film We Need To Talk About Kevin. I think it was an unfair decision to put Leigh’s film first because it’s a forensically precise film that would have played better with critics after a few big-name director titles had screened. To play first draws the kind of intense critical scrutiny from a fresh critical corps that a first film, however accomplished, might buckle under.

Critics sat silently, neither applauding nor booing, at the end of both press screenings of Sleeping Beauty, which is one of those films that refuses to instruct the audience how to feel. Emily Browning, who has a name in Hollywood from Sucker Punch and Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, is a student unafraid of sex who takes a job with a high class madam (a fantastically glacial turn by Rachael Blake) who drugs her into a deep sleep and then lets her clients run amok with her. The only condition: “her vagina will not penetrated.”

It reminded me of both Damjan Kozole’s Slovenian Girl and Nanouk Leopold’s Brownian Movement in its story of a self-possessed, inscrutable woman using sex to meet needs (whether carnal or financial), but Leigh’s elegant style - careful compositions, long patches of silence, surreal dialogue and situations, starkly unemotive performances - has a distinctiveness which merited the competition slot. Of course, like most good Cannes films, it’s really about death, not sex, and the final half hour in which one of the men who is sleeping with her (Carroll) explains the disappointments of his life through the context of Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann’s short story The Thirtieth Year deepens and strengthens Lucy’s story considerably.

A little like Nanouk Leopold, Leigh doesn’t judge Lucy and doesn’t impose any moralising into the story. That is always hard for audiences used to being told what is right and what is wrong. The deliberate emotional remoteness of Sleeping Beauty will prove perplexing to many, but its images and questions certainly kept me awake last night.

Now on to Kevin, a triumphant return to the screen for Ramsay — who was last in Cannes with her first feature Ratcatcher in Un Certain Regard in 1999. Ramsay is such a natural film-maker, so fluid and unique as a writer, a visual stylist, a director of actors, an editor. It’s a devastating mosaic of shards from the life of a woman racked with a guilt she will never overcome and a maternal love she cannot abandon.

It’s difficult to watch a film based on a novel you revere - expectations are so high and criticism ready on the tongue - and Lionel Shriver’s source book is one of my favourites. Ramsay, however, not only captures the essence of Shriver’s prose but also creates her own highly cinematic work exploring the bond between mother and son, nurture and nature, good and evil.

Being a book snob, of course, I will say that I longed for a few more scenes of happier days between the couple at the story’s heart (played by Tilda Swinton and John C Reilly) to contrast with the unhappiness that follows the birth of their son Kevin. Swinton is astonishing, as might be expected, but she barely cracks a smile in the whole film. When she does it’s highly noticeable.

Applause greeted the 8.30am screening in the 2400-seat Salle Lumiere at the Palais this morning, and although some critics will loathe it, I suspect it will be mostly well-received. Swinton sets the bar for the best actress award and Ramsay makes a glorious comeback. The way the film is assembled, its cinematography (by the brilliant Seamus McGarvey), its sound design and some of the shattering images are signs of a master at work. Or a mistress. Whatever a female cinematic master is called.

Competition screenings continue later today with the third woman director - France’s Maewenn and her tough child protection squad drama Poliss. Watch this blog for response.