Dispirited by torrential rain and a cumulative three hours of train delays, Official Competition faced a grumpy, wet-socked critic. But as I thawed and sunk back into my cinema seat, I couldn’t help but be affected by the relentless charm of the film, which offers a vivid, witty, and densely-packed satire of movie-making.
Official Competition, directed by Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, tells the story of three cinematic egos who have been tasked by Spanish billionaire Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) with adapting Rivalry, an award-winning novel which he has not read, for the screen. Humberto chooses Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), a capricious and wildly creative director to craft the film, and Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) to play the lead roles, Pedro and Manuel.
The brothers’ titular rivalry is reflected in the relationship of Félix and Iván. The former actor is a roguish superstar whose acting philosophy is motivated by consummate crowd-pleasing and delight in material success. By contrast, the latter is a serious character actor, an ideological and academic thespian who despises spectacle or demagoguery within theatre.
They are played off against each other expertly by Lola, who professes a fascination with the tensions that arise when the two worlds collide. What follows is a series of absurd rehearsals which wryly highlight the excesses of the movie trade, eliciting plenty of laughs from the audience along the way.
The film is very creative with noise. One unforgettable auditory experience sees Humberto’s daughter Diana (Irene Escolar), who has been cast as Pedro and Manuel’s mutual love interest, practice kissing both of the leads, surrounded by hundreds of microphones.
A similarly bold sensory approach is employed through the film’s visuals. The majority of the film is set in a stark, monumental building, where cavernous minimalist rooms make for great experiments in symmetry and scale. One very funny scene sees Félix and Iván delivering their lines while dwarfed beneath a suspended boulder, which Lola claims will help them feel the tension within the script. Another involves Félix and Iván cling-wrapped together and forced to watch Lola shred their various acting awards — the absurdity of which is hammered home as the camera lingers on a bird’s-eye shot of various items being chewed up by the teeth of the shredder.
The film revels in irony, which it expresses best with satisfying deployment of foreshadowing – each gag and plot twist falls pleasingly into place – and toe-curling moments of voyeurism where characters’ awkward private moments are laid bare to the audience.
One such moment, played to great effect by Martínez, sees the camera watch on as Iván, having just dismissed the Anglophone spectacle of the Oscars to Félix, delivering a speech into the dressing room mirror having received an imagined Oscar (really a kettle). Iván’s seriousness and snobbery is subverted in an instant, without his ever knowing.
All three actors deliver compelling performances, evidently having fun with their respective roles. In particular, Penélope Cruz is excellent, eye-catching with a huge wig and a series of fantastic outfits. She captures the dynamism and the ridiculousness of the character, allowing her to relish manipulating the two actors to compete against each other and to despair at the results of the competition. Cruz’ Lola is undeniably a great director – even her more bizarre stunts elicit some progress towards her cinematic vision – yet the consequences of that greatness are hard for her to control.
Official Competition does not provide a neatly-packaged argument about which artistic philosophy is the right one. Unlike some meta-movies, it thankfully avoids being didactic. Instead, it offers a tight and cleverly-executed satire of self-involvement, leaving no pretension unmocked.