The film industry satire is almost as old as the industry itself. The navel gazing aspect of the genre can lead to something that is more vain than deconstructive, and perhaps that’s why so many filmmakers decide to do it – virulent narcissism well disguised as winking humility. There are definite classics within this subgenre (Mulholland Drive and The Player are the standard), but it is mostly a breeding ground for defanged insight or frivolous spoof. Which is what makes Official Competition so intriguing. For one, it takes place in Spain, far from Hollywood which is the usual punching bag locale; the vast city’s artificiality a common stand-in for the vapid nature of filmmaking itself. By taking place in Europe, Official Competition narrows its vantage point, focusing on the more insulated world of prestige.
Penelope Cruz plays Lola Cuevas, an award-winning director known for her unflinching work and her eccentric process. Wearing a massive coif of wild red curls atop her head, Lola’s presence is striking and authoritative. She’s hired by Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez), a pharmaceutical magnate whose obscene fortune doesn’t satisfy his need to be perceived as a great man. Funding a great film, he believes, will improve his social standing as a worldly mind, and more than just a businessman. Working with Humberto’s blank check, Lola quickly moves to adapt a Nobel Prize-winning novel called “Rivalry”, an East of Eden-type epic about two brothers in a feud that spans their entire lifetimes. For the two lead roles, Lola calls upon two actors whose esteem and reputation could not be any more different.
Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) is a world-renowned movie star, beloved around the globe for his populist films and television shows. Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) is a distinguished performer, a critic’s darling who teaches acting students between estimable projects on stage and screen. The two men, opposed in both practice and purpose, are brought together by Lola who believes that the tension within their vast differences will enhance the movie’s robust drama. Her methods are unusual, with both actors often at odds with her as often as they are with each other. Over several rehearsals, the three approach something close to a professional routine, even if their respect for one another is hardly present. Iván can’t stand Félix’s outsized vanity. Felix can’t stand Iván’s persistent pretension. Lola fights with both of them to find a common ground, while all three battle internally and externally to harness their own egos.
Directors Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn use deliberate framing to create visual tableaus within their scenes, often using deep focus to take advantage of single take sequences (cinematography by Arnau Valls Colomer). The intentional style recalls Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, whose films are also known for their cheeky satire, and who also uses the portrait-like framing to enhance the sense of superficiality amongst his characters. The form is meant to directly oppose the kinds of melodramas that Official Competition attempts to skewer, even if it does end up producing its own layer of ostentation. Which is maybe the point? It’s hard to tell. There is not much below the surface here, and the script (written by the two directors as well as Andrés Duprat) obsesses over hypocrisies that it doesn’t realize it’s also perpetrating.
All these characters are caricatures with nuance mostly missing from the fold. Unlike Östlund, the satire is more ironic than it is vicious, and the movie’s ending feels like a manufactured shock that would have had more effect before the final fifteen minutes. The central battle of the movie – Félix’s monolithic star power versus Iván’s cerebral verisimilitude – becomes a battle of attrition, a philosophical debate that devolves into childish squabbles, while Lola is often lost in the wilderness of her own musings, creating outlandish scenarios to contrive authenticity from her actors. One of my favorite parts of Official Competition is that it has little regard for any of its characters’ perceived artistic moralities, and the film performs best when it’s at its most heartless.
Ultimately, this is a pretty shallow dissection, but I still enjoyed the hell out of this movie. This is mostly because of the performances from Cruz, Banderas, and Martínez, who all are all hilariously mannered and are each examining a specific type of artistic respectability. In the end, it probably doesn’t much matter that Official Competition doesn’t go very deep when its actors have such a firm handle on the movie’s central conceit, which is that none of these people possess the purity they so desperately seek. They are all in their own ways looking to buy a prestige that is never actually available to them. A group of bad faith actors competing in a zero sum game. This doesn’t have the brutality or the ethical dilemmas of Östlund’s films, but it also doesn’t have those films’ sense of righteousness, which ultimately works greatly to Competition‘s benefit.
Directed by Gastón Duprat & Mariano Cohn