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The Future of Cannes: A Brief Look at Critics' Week

The Semaine de la Critique, or Critics' Week, is a week-long festival during Cannes that emphasizes discovery of new talent.
Los Perros
Los perros, premiering in Critics' Week this year, is the second feature film by Marcela Said.
When this year’s Cannes slate was announced, an absence that many immediately noted in the competition slate was that of Claire Denis’ latest project: Un beau soleil intérieur, an adaptation of Roland Barthes's 1977 text A Lover's Discourse: Fragments. Leaving aside why her last feature, Bastards, was shunted to the Un Certain Regard section in 2013, the fact that one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers was again denied a competition slot was baffling, to say the least. Except that the film will be at Cannes, premiering alongside new films by Philippe Garrel, Bruno Dumont, and Abel Ferrara no less; it just won’t be in what’s known as the Official Selection. Specifically, Denis will be opening the Director’s Fortnight (Quinzaine des Réalisateurs), a separate, parallel festival completely independent from what is officially known as the Festival de Cannes. 
That’s a long-winded way of saying that “What We Talk About When We Talk About Cannes” is rarely ever just the Official Selection, as presided over by artistic director Thierry Frémaux. Or maybe it was, at least until the spring of 1961, when at the behest of the Association Française de la Critique de Cinéma (French Association of Film Critics), the festival screened The Connection, the debut feature of American experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke. Subject to controversy in New York (and later banned following complaints of indecency), Clarke’s feature was screened out of competition in order to bring attention to a film that otherwise might have been completely ignored by the festival circuit, not to mention film discourse in general. The following year saw an expansion of that screening when Robert Favre le Bret (artistic director of the festival at the time), in partnership with the Film National Center, allowed the Association Française to program a week-long festival, separate from the Official Selection. It would become the Semaine de la Critique (Critics’ Week).
Seven years before the Directors’ Fortnight (started in 1968) allowed directors to put a spotlight on films the regular Cannes selection committee were ignoring, the Critics' Week already afforded (French) critics the same opportunity. Arnaud Desplechin, whose Les fantômes d'Ismaël (Ismael’s Ghosts) will open this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and who was last on the Croisette for My Golden Days (2013) in Directors’ Fortnight, actually got his start in Critics’ Week in 1991, when his extraordinary first feature La vie des morts played in competition. Ditto Philippe Garrel and François Ozon, both at Cannes this year in the Directors’ Fortnight and Cannes Official Selection respectively, but who each got their start in Critics’ Week with Marie pour mémoire (1968) and Sitcom (1998).
It’s probably too soon to say how well last year’s selection will fare over the years, but at the very least the films that screen (and their respective directors) are well worth keeping an eye on. Last year’s prizewinner, Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas would go on to be part of several prestigious festival selections (Toronto, New York) before receiving distribution. Mehmet Can Mertoğlu’s Albüm and Davy Chou’s Diamond Island eventually played New Directors/New Films 2017, while Julia Ducournau’s Raw (which got a U.S. release earlier this year) has made something of a splash in terms of genre fare. That’s not to say that Critics’ Week has (or ever will have) the clout of a Cannes “In Competition” slot; but that’s decidedly not what the festival is for.
The focus is not on prestige, but discovery; and as such the festival explicitly aims “to highlight first and second feature films,”also limiting its selection to just ten features (and, since 1988, ten shorts). It’s a space for filmmakers still taking their “first steps,” as the festival puts it, whose films may not be ready for the harsh spotlight of the Cannes competition slate, but who are nonetheless more than deserving of some attention. Take Jeff Nichols, whose Take Shelter won the Critics’ Week Grand Prix in 2011, and who then made consecutive showings in the Cannes Competition line-up with Mud (2012) and Loving (2016). Looking at the Official Selection (and Fortnight line-ups) will often give one a sense of the filmmakers that have and will continue to dominate the conversation around Cannes in the years to come. But look a little harder at the handful of films in the Critics' Week and one may get a sense of what “Cannes” will look like five, ten or 15 years down the road.

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