Cannes is first and foremost about the Palme d'Or and the main competition of some 20 or so films, though numerous sidebars contain at least as many interesting alternatives. The festival's leanest section, Critics' Week, programs first and second films from emerging directors. This year offered a strong panorama of titles by young filmmakers that were quite different from the films in Official Selection.
As the name suggests, the Critics' Week is programmed by a separate committee of French critics, currently headed by Charles Tesson (a former editor-in-chief of revered local publication Cahiers du cinéma). One of the major advantages of the independence of the programmers of the Critics' Week (and also of the Directors Fortnight, which is also an independently run sidebar) is that it allows for a greater variation of films to be shown on the Croisette, as the tastes and selection criteria might (and often do) differ from those of Thierry Frémaux and his team, who put together the Official Selection (comprised of the main competition, non-competing titles, Un Certain Regard, Cannes Classics and Midnight Screenings).
The Critics' Week competition consists of just seven feature titles (one for each day of the titular week) and a handful of non-competing films, including this year's French opening film, Katell Quillévéré's "Suzanne" (the only Critics' Week title directed by a woman) and the Sundance title "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," from David Lowery, which was given the decidedly less mysterious-sounding title "Les Amants du Texas" ("The Texan Lovers") in French. ("Saints" is actually a third feature so couldn’t play in competition since only first and second films are eligible to compete.)
The 3D compilation film "3X3D," with shorts by Swiss New-Wave legend Jean-Luc Godard, Netherlands-based experimental Brit Peter Greenaway and Portuguese filmmaker Edgar Pêra, closed the Critics’ Week on an unusually auteur-heavy and experienced note.
The section’s top prize went to sensorial Sicilian hitman drama "Salvo" (the title refers to gunfire, the protagonist's name, short for Salvatore — i.e. Savior — and also suggests "I'm safe" in Italian), a beautifully staged story that pits the blind sister of a gangster against the man who has come to kill her brother. The camerawork and attention to sound are exceptional, though the writer-directors, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, struggle somewhat in the script department, as they seem unsure how to take their exceptional technique and intriguing set-up to a higher level in the film's second half. That said, it is an impressive first feature and the filmmakers are certainly names to watch and seem adept at getting the very best out of their experienced technicians (including some that worked with Marco Bellocchio).
Not quite as polished but also indebted to genre films and reliant on technical means such as sound and camera to get the blood racing, Russian entry "The Major" is the second feature from multi-hyphenate Yuri Bikov, who stars in the film he directed, edited and wrote and for which he also did the music. The story, about a policeman in a hurry who accidentally kills a young boy and thinks that a lot of wrong decisions might make things right (no guessing what the outcome of that will be), was produced by Russian director Alexei Uchitel, whose "The Edge" was an Oscar submission a couple of years back.
Though Bikov's practically a one-man filmmaking show, the directors of "Salvo" found strength in numbers, as did the directors of the competition film "The Owners," an Argentinean feature from Agustín Toscano and Ezequiel Radusky that looks at class tension on a vacation estate where the owners are rarely there and the servants move in each time their employers leave the main house -- only to have to scramble when they unexpectedly return. Lower key than the gun-blazing approach of "Salvo" or "The Major," it has in common with its competition colleague "The Lunchbox," from Indian director Ritesh Batra, the need to carefully illustrate a recognizable reality and then invite audiences to read between the lines to pick up the nuances.
The less flashy approach actually works in favor of both films, but "Lunchbox" has the added bonus of being about food as well and starring Bollywood royalty Irrfan Khan, who was recently also in Ang Lee's "Life of Pi." Of all the films in the Critics' Week, this light but superbly controlled confection is most likely to succeed in the international art house arena; it finds an almost perfect balance between drama and light comedy, has beautifully modulated performances and is very European in execution (it was co-produced by France and Germany and the subtle realism is miles removed from the song-and-dance bling of Bollywood). Sony Pictures Classics picked up U.S. rights at the festival.
Low-key realism and precision are also terms that come to mind when thinking about "Le Démentèlement," the second feature from French-Canadian director Sébastien Pilote. The story of an aging farmer (actor Gabriel Arcand, brother of "Barbarian Invasions" director Denys) who decides to sell his house and land to help out one of his two daughters in the big city (neither of whom seem to care much for their father at all), is a gentle character study. At its center, a solitary father figure finally realizes that instead of having provided for his children, his farm has mostly taken away time that he could have spent with them. Though Pilote overdoes the King Lear references, there's a generally understated quality here that's also present in "The Lunchbox" and "The Owners" and that films in the festival's Official Selection often seem to lack (extremities or at least unusual occurrences are almost de rigueur there).
The aforementioned "Life of Pi," by Ang Lee -- incidentally on Cannes’ main competition jury this year headed by Spielberg -- was also on the lips of many after seeing the U.K. title "For Those in Peril" from rookie director Paul Wright, in which a young Scot finds himself in emotional and psychological distress after a fishing accident of which he is the only survivor. Less interested in reality than in mood and suggestion, the film offers a very different but no less gripping story that's most closely related to "Salvo," though it has rougher edges. Overall, it's yet another promising debut from a director who will no doubt go on to do (even) greater things. One could say the same about many of the films at Critics Week.