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Rival tendencies: As Steven Spielberg gets ready to chair this year's Cannes jury, we prepare for an alterna-Cannes.

CANNES, FRANCE — When you think of the Cannes Film Festival, you might picture yachts, red carpets, paparazzi, and the coveted Palme d'Or. But the festival as a whole is a complex mix, with several programs that run in tandem alongside the renowned "official selection." The Marché du Film alone — the world's largest film market — has 30 screens operating throughout the city, and that's just what's listed. If you were a programmer looking to fill out your entire season with coming-of-age films, you could conceivably spend ten days at market theaters like the one above watching nothing else.

The most prominent parallel festivals are Directors' Fortnight and Critics' Week, each of which operates independently of the main event. The Fortnight (or "Quinzaine," as we Americans who enjoy using French words begin calling it the minute we hit the ground) has countercultural origins. It began in 1969, styling itself as a more eclectic alternative to the film festival proper, which famously shut down amid the protests of May 1968.

Over the years, the Fortnight and the official selection have become rivals for top talent. Screenings for the former take place not in a palatial setting but a hotel basement, ten minutes' walk from the main festival's Palais. The presentations have a minimum of pretense and often feature lengthy Q&As (otherwise a rarity at Cannes). The Fortnight kicks off tomorrow. One presumes each movie will be preceded by the same trailer always shown, which touts past triumphs from Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, to name just a few. This is a lineup where discoveries are made. Last year’s selections included "Room 237" and "Sightseers."

It can be fun to ponder the tug-of-war among Cannes's various programming factions. Because — let’s face it — most filmmakers probably want a Palme d'Or, they usually try for a competition slot first, looking elsewhere only if they aren't invited. This year, the Fortnight opens with Ari Folman's "The Congress," adapted from a novel by Stanislaw Lem ("Solaris"). The fact that it's not competing for the Palme seems like an ominous sign, given the rapturous reception Folman's "Waltz with Bashir" received here in 2008. But sometimes the calculus is complicated. Reports suggest that chief Cannes programmer Thierry Frémaux wanted "The Selfish Giant," directed by Clio Barnard ("The Arbor”), for the competition, but for whatever reason didn't wrest it back from his rival down the street. Rumblings from the U.K. suggest the movie could hold its own among Cannes's strongest titles.

The other major parallel festival is Critics' Week, which takes place further east down the Croisette — Cannes’s waterfront boulevard — and consists mainly of first and second features. This year's program, however, will be topped off with “3X3D,” a 3-D omnibus film that includes segments by veteran iconoclasts Jean-Luc Godard and Peter Greenaway. Godard never misses an opportunity to employ an aesthetic device in an abrasive and bracingly new way. What he'll do with 3-D is one of Cannes 2013's most tantalizing prospects.


As for the competition, this year's edition features new movies by the Coen brothers, Alexander Payne, Steven Soderbergh, Roman Polanski, and Nicolas Winding Refn. At a press conference today, moderator Henri Behar asked jury president Steven Spielberg why it's taken so long for him to chair one of the world's most prestigious film events. Spielberg chalked it up to timing. "I've been so consistently at work, especially in the spring months, directing, that every time I've been approached to be on the jury I have been busy working," he said.

Reputed to have a competitive streak, Spielberg claimed no qualms about judging colleagues' films. "We're always sitting in kind of personal private judgment" of movies, he noted, adding that he and his fellow jurors — who include Spielberg's Oscar rival Ang Lee, Nicole Kidman, and Christoph Waltz — are always being judged themselves. Kidman described serving as a jury as her way of "contributing back" to a festival that’s always treated her well, and also fielded an inane question about whether her husband, Keith Urban, gave her any tips for Cannes in light of his work as a juror on "American Idol."

As for Spielberg, Lee, and the still-fresh Oscar duel between "Lincoln" and "Life of Pi," the two men insisted there was no bad blood after Lee's win. "I worship him," Ang Lee said of his jury president. "I don't know how he feels about me, but I worship him." Spielberg echoed the thought. "We’ve never ever been competitors — we've always been colleagues," he said. "I worship 'Life of Pi,' therefore I worship Ang Lee as well."

That said, Spielberg suggested he's not above persuading his fellow jurors to vote the way he wants. "I'm going to have to look at the Sidney Lumet film '12 Angry Men' again as a tutorial to prepare myself for the final day of deliberation," he said. Given the rumor that the director could screen films on his yacht rather than in the traditional Grand Theatre Lumière, it might be best to imagine "12 Angry Men” at sea.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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