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Four female nominees for Palme d'Or make it a golden year for women

The British director Lynne Ramsay is leading an unprecedented charge by female directors at this year's Cannes Film Festival. This year's competition for the Palme d'Or prize features four women directors, the highest in the festival's64-year history.

Ramsay has directed an adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the story of a mother coming to terms with her son's psychopathic behaviour.

Critics panned last year's Cannes line-up for solely featuring male directors. This year's female comeback is led by Ramsay, best known for her debut Ratcatcher (screened at Cannes in 1999), joining Japan's Naomi Kawase, France's Maiwenn Le Besco and the Australian Julia Leigh in a contest to win over a Cannes jury chaired by Robert De Niro.

"It is very exciting for everyone involved, for Lynne, her colleagues and for the shape of the festival," said Luc Roeg, one of the film's producers. "It feels great because we are so proud of the movie, whereas the selection is somewhat out of our control. While Shriver said the film had her blessing, she said she had not seen the film and has not been invited to attend the festival.

"I've lived on the margins of the process," she said. "It has my signature on the contract but I did not write any of the script. It's obviously important to Lynne that I like it, which is very sweet, and so it's important to me that it's important to her. She wants me to see it at its best, and that means seeing it when it's completely finished."

The adaptation stars John C Reilly and Tilda Swinton as Kevin's parents, Eva and Franklin, with the eponymous character played by the relative newcomer Ezra Miller. Radiohead's guitarist Jonny Greenwood has composed the score. Kawase's historical feature Hanezu No Tsuki, her fourth feature film, is Asia's only film in competition; Le Besco's entry is the cop romance Polisse, while Leigh's erotic drama Sleeping Beauty sees Lucy, a student, forced into prostitution and drugged.

Big-name directors in competition include Pedro Almodovar, for the revenge picture La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In); Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, described as a "beautiful movie about the end of the world", and Terrence Malick's generational drama The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt. The latter is the only US film in competition.

Eagerly awaited films this year include Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be The Place, starring Sean Penn as a wealthy retired rock star hunting a former Nazi who persecuted his father. Drive, directed by the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, stars Ryan Gosling as a stunt performer with a contract on his head.

The festival's opening film is Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, a romantic comedy set in Paris. Appearing out of competition will be the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Jodie Foster's The Beaver, featuring Mel Gibson, in which the controversial actor plays a hopelessly depressed man who finds solace in a glove puppet. The competition line-up features 19 films in total, with the festival running from 11 to 22 May. The winner of the Palme d'Or is announced on the festival's final day.

Cannes 2011: The female leads

Naomi Kawase Hanezu No Tsuki

The 41-year-old Japanese director won the Cannes Film Festival's Grand Prix, its second most prestigious prize, in 2007 for Mogari no Mori (The Mourning Forest), the story of a nurse grieving for her dead child. She is in competition this year for Hanezu No Tsuki, which focuses on the history of the city of Asuka.

Lynne Ramsay We Need to Talk About Kevin

Glasgow-born Ramsay, 41, is a graduate of Beaconsfield's prestigious National Film and Television School. Her adaptation of Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin is part financed by the now-defunct UK Film Council, along with BBC Films, and is Britain's sole entry in competition at Cannes this year.

Maiwenn Le Besco Polisse

Le Besco, 34, who works under the moniker Maiwenn, is best known as her appearance as an opera-singing alien in Luc Besson's 1997 sci-fi The Fifth Element. She made her directing debut in 2006 Pardonnez-Moi, a sleeper hit, and is in competition this year for cop romance Polisse.

Julia Leigh Sleeping Beauty

Leigh, 40, is a novelist best known for her debut film The Hunter, a tale of survival set in the Tasmanian wilds. She makes her directorial debut with a controversial adaptation of her own novel, Sleeping Beauty, described as a "haunting erotic fairy tale" featuring drugs and prostitution.

The other contenders

Pedro Almodóvar – La Piel que Habito

Bertrand Bonello – L'Apollonide (Souvenirs de la Maison Close)

Alain Cavalier – Pater

Joseph Cedar – Hearat Shulayim

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne – Le Gamin au Vélo (The Kid with a Bike)

Aki Kaurismäki – Le Havre

Nuri Bilge Ceylan – Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life

Radu Mihaileanu – La Source des Femmes (The Source)

Takashi Miike – Ichimei (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samuraï)

Nanni Moretti – Habemus Papam (We have a Pope)

Markus Schleinzer – Michael

Paolo Sorrentino – This Must Be the Place

Lars von Trier – Melancholia

Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive