Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martínez, José Luis Gómez, Irene Escolar
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… a sharp satire …
Going to extremes for art is a tricky feat to navigate. It can be heralded as easily as it can be ridiculed. (see House of Gucci as evidence)
In the case of Spanish-Argentine comedy Official Competition (Competencia oficial), art exists not as an expression of creativity but as a means of legacy. The pretentiousness of filmmaking – captured through the biting gaze of directors Gastón Duprat & Mariano Cohn – serves not only as a farce on those who “create”, but the masters that they serve.
There is an ample number of films-about-films out there; their usual depiction following the real-life antics of on-set dysfunction and the bewildering manner in which they got made. While not based on an actual production, Official Competition hits differently, following the rehearsal process of a film adaptation of acclaimed novel, Rivalry. The gist of the novel speaks to a tumultuous relationship between two brothers that, in true Hispanic style, is oozing in melodrama. Its raison d’être – a means to memorialise a bumbling pharmaceutical magnate, Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez), concerned about his legacy – would be fitting for the most self-conscious of Egyptian pharaohs.
To create his “groundbreaking” opus, Suárez hires Palme d’Or winning filmmaker Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) as director. We know she is a visionary from the moment her loud, curly locks – so overwhelming they rest on her shoulders probably so that they don’t yank her head backwards – and impassioned demeanour penetrates the screen. She hires two decorated actors of varying stripes: fast-and-loose Hollywood playboy Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and acting purist Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez, not lacking in hubris). If Lola is the brains, Iván would be the heart and Félix would be the lower-back tattoo.
Their chaotic interactions, a product of their ideological differences, sets forth an array of hijinks, ranging from rehearsing under life-or-death circumstances to destructive acts to nullify the ego. You’ve never seen more intense theatre games.
Duprat and Cohn construct a sharp satire that doesn’t feel like an in-joke amongst filmmakers, exploring the underlying commercial aspects that dictate the creative process and the double standards they involve.
The film’s elaborate setting, occurring predominantly within an imposing mega-structure abundant in empty space, deepens this concept of vacuous exhibitionism. Embodying these motifs with ardent flair is the film’s principal cast, with its three primary players proving engrossing in their larger-than-life embodiments. (It is as if they have witnessed this experience first-hand.) Their frequent clashes, a product of their conflicting approaches to ‘art’, reinforce the ridiculousness of the industry. They aren’t so much suffering for their art as they are being insufferable, a point delectably established in the film’s final moments.
The world constructed is one of self-aggrandizement, presented as a series of caustic punchlines. Its depiction questions the state of creativity (most affecting when the empathetic Lola, on her lonesome, begins to floss while wearing a superhero t-shirt), the pomposity of the art crowd (ahem…), and the fragile egos that dominate.
It is all nonsense, just whether anybody on the inside realises is perhaps the biggest joke of all.