Director: Gaston Dúprat, Mariano Cohn
Stars: Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martínez
Notions of performance, craft and artistic integrity are swept up and spat out again here in Gaston Dúprat and Mariano Cohn’s delicious deconstruction of the processes of movie making. Their film, Official Competition, joins a long legacy of such pictures – which at times can feel like the ouroboros; the snake eating its own tail – yet still manages to stand apart in the pantheon of Films About Filmmaking.
As intimated, we’re in comedic territory here, aligning with the likes of such classics as Day for Night or Irma Vep. When bored industrialist Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) yearns to be remembered, he elects to finance a ‘great film’, though he is ambivalent over what it’s content ought to be (so, a textbook exec). Most importantly it should bear his name. Securing the rights to a prestigious novel, he garners the interest of a renowned director, Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), and gives her carte blanche to realise the work as she sees fit.
Cuevas – a taciturn and pretentious creation with whom Cruz is having evident glee – hires two diametrically opposed actors to play the story’s two leading men; brothers who relentlessly compete with one another (the piece is called ‘Rivalry’ after all). Antonio Banderas plays Félix Rivero; an international ‘movie star’ who’d rather not dig into the psychological kernels at the heart of his characters at all. Against him – in all senses – is Oscar Martínez’s celebrated Thespian and acting teacher Iván Torres; an arrogant and haughty man who looks down on Rivero as a Hollywood sellout.
Instead of running through the catalogue of mishaps that can occur on a film set, Official Competition focuses entirely on Cuevas’ lengthy and overwrought rehearsal process, bedding down at her cubist multi-level studio home out in the country. With a script that looks like a teenager’s scrapbook, Cuevas puts both actors through their paces with an exacting and sometimes torturous litany of exercises, wielding whatever leverage she has at her disposal (including her own sexuality). An infantile grudge match quickly asserts itself between Rivero and Torres; an escalating cycle of bait and retaliation that throws Cuevas’ lofty ambitions into farce.
The open, minimalist floors of the building in which most of the film takes place only emphasise the vacuity on display. The negative space is so often pressing in the frame, keeping the emptiness of the trio’s endeavour – their privileged indulgence – forefront in the viewer’s consciousness. Official Competition pulls no punches, taking critical swipes at artistic licence and excess. Peripheral laborers and cleaners look on with passive acceptance like the stock characters in the margins of Roy Andersson pictures, waiting patiently for their opportunity to clear up the mess that their ‘betters’ are making. A distinct yet still humorous attack on the bourgeoise. Cuevas clearly would like to differentiate herself from such dilatants, but the picture knowingly winks at her position.
Still, nobody is spared. Emblematic of elite and populist styles, Torres and Rivero are mocked with equal gusto. And as much as we’re invited to ridicule Cuevas’ rhapsodic questioning of the nature of art, watching as a ‘critic’, it’s wryly pleasing to admit that she makes interesting arguments. Dressed up as mockery, Official Competition asks provocatively about the nature of creativity and performance; who it serves, where it begins and – in a final sequence that stares directly out at it’s audience sitting in the dark – where it ends.
The three leads are superb. Cruz is having a great time at present outside of the Hollywood system that so embraced her. Between this and Parallel Mothers she’s showing some of her most diverse and eminently enjoyable work. Her appearance here with an explosion of red hair contains facets of prior performances, but it’s also loose in a way her American comedies never afforded her. Banderas plays good-naturedly with his own persona while simultaneously reminding us, cannily, that he’s one of the best actors of his generation. While Martínez’s pompous prig is a masterpiece of cringe comedy all too recognisable from real life. With this dream trifecta, Official Competition has it’s cake and eats it.
Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winning The Square attempted many of the same potshots, albeit from the remove of the art world. A scattershot and unwieldy affair, it sits – ironically – in the shadow of Official Competition; a film that succeeds in large part because of it’s narrower, sharper focus. A loving send-up of both the methods and the madness.