After a fun opening night living vicariously through Woody Allen’s Paris, the Cannes official competition and sales market really got down to business Thursday. And how’s this for a good time? The fest started the competitive entries with a double bill of downer flicks directed by two very smart women. Unfortunately, only one of them worked.

First up was the dreadful Sleeping Beauty, an Australian drama revolving around a girl, played by Emily Browning, who subjects herself to such degrading inhuman sexual acts we can’t even go into it here. As she is induced into a coma-like state a number of eighty-something men have their way with her. Fun, huh? The really stunning thing is that rare Palme D’Or winning woman, Jane Campion (The Piano), is lending her name to this dreary exercise from first-timer Julia Leigh.

It could only go up from there and it did — waaaaay up — at the 8:30 AM Thursday morning press screening for Lynne Ramsey’s extraordinary We Need To Talk About Kevin, starring the ever-remarkable Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly as parents dealing with tragic circumstances caused by their out-of-control son. It is a most impressive acting and directorial feat that gives the festival its first genuine awards contender, and if it can secure domestic distribution (may distribs such as Sony Pictures Classics and Lionsgate were seen entering the early AM screening), the Oscar-winning Swinton could once again find herself in the Academy race next year and definitely for a prize here on May 22.

Now, if narcoleptic sexual proclivities and mass-murdering teens weren’t enough to get us into a festive mood, the other official entry I saw today certainly did the trick. France’s Polisse, about a special cop unit dealing with crimes against kids, made the case that every third person in France appears to be a pedophile or some sort of clueless sexual pervert. Actually, the film itself, which is lively and involving, could be a commercial hit, but it’s overlong and too often annoying. On top of that, it looks like a pilot for a TV series.

So thank the Lord for Un Certain Regard. The second-most-important, and actually edgier, competition at Cannes got under way Thursday night with the premiere of Gus Van Sant’s Restless, which deals with a young kid (played by 20-year-old Henry Hopper, son of the late Dennis Hopper) who regularly likes to cruise cemeteries and attend funerals of strangers. There he meets a spirited young terminal cancer patient played by Mia Wasikowska and falls in love. By comparison with the downer material on display so far at the Palais, this was a fun time at the movies.

Actually, it’s a sweet dissertation on life and death beautifully acted by Hopper and Wasikowska. Originally it was going to premiere at Sundance and then be released by Columbia Pictures, but things changed as the major studio’s sister specialty division, Sony Pictures Classics, grabbed it from the mother ship, cancelled that Sundance screening and submitted it to Cannes, where fest director Thierry Fremaux decided to put it in as the opening-night slot of Un Certain Regard. It was a bit of a surprising decision since Van Sant, a former Palme d’Or winner for Elephant, is a favorite of the main division.

But the two competitions are becoming almost interchangeable in terms of quality pictures, and the engaging Restless was well received by the full house at tonight’s premiere screening. Van Sant, a man of few words, and his screenwriter Jason Lew and producer Bryce Dallas Howard (Dad Ron’s Imagine was the production company) were joined by Wasikowska and Hopper in the packed Claude Debussy auditorium.

At the elegant after-party dinner at Le Cote, Van Sant told me his horror story of how he almost didn’t even make it to the South of France. He was shooting his first-ever TV show (as exec producer) Boss in Chicago for the Starz cable channel and was going to fly to London and then here. One problem though: He forgot his passport back in hometown Portland, Ore. The oversight was just discovered yesterday and so a friend grabbed it, flew cross-country to give it to Van Sant and accompanied him to France. The frazzled publicists had to postpone all his interviews until Friday, but he DID make it barely in time for his premiere.

I asked Hopper if this was the first time he had been to Cannes, and he said he had hit the Riviera when he was 1, 6 and 13 years old. His fondest memory was the carousel in the middle of town. It was at age 13 when he was staring at one of his father’s valuable paintings (by Basquiat) that he suddenly discovered a creative urge in himself and jumped into showbiz just like Dad. SPC is hoping to get the film in a major fall festival and open in September. The company is really on a roll here, with not only Restless opening Un Certain Regard but also Midnight In Paris opening the main festival competition last night.

Earlier in the evening, ICM threw a party at the Hotel Majestic for its package of the Gotti: Three Generations project, the movie Oscar winner Barry Levinson just signed to direct after eye-opening conversations with John Gotti Jr convinced him to do it. Levinson told me the real story is nothing we could expect from seeing similar mob stories in the movies. He plans to shoot by the end of the year with John Travolta starring. Lindsay Lohan has also been signed, but when I asked if he thought she would actually be in it. Levinson shrugged and said, “We’ll see how that works out.” Although he has done similar genre material like Bugsy and Sleepers, he says this provides a new opportunity to do something completely different.

Before this film gets going, he has ecological horror flick The Bay in post that has just been sold to Lionsgate. The tiny $2 million no-star film excites Levinson, who is excited to see it hit theaters once Lionsgate dates it. I asked if he gets to Cannes often but he said, “I don’t go out much.” He was here in 2008 when his Hollywood satire What Just Happened? played. He loves the film (which flopped theatrically) and is happy it is finally finding an audience in ancillary platforms and DVD. He said he and Robert De Niro, here as Jury President for the official competition, were having fun reminiscing about the project just last night. He thinks it is De Niro’s best performance in years, and I agree.