Dir: Gaston Duprat, Mariano Cohn. Starring: Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martinez, Jose Luis Gomez, Irene Escolar, Manolo Solo. 15, 114 minutes.
Is the film industry’s obsession with poking fun at its own excesses just another form of vanity? After the hundredth comedy about conceited artists and their many gluttonies (see: Judd Apatow’s painfully unfunny The Bubble), it all starts to feel a little like the dirtbag boyfriend who loves to apologise for how “messed up” he is, but never makes the slightest attempt to fix his behaviour. Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s Official Competition may be yet another satire on filmmaking, but it’s the rare iteration that’s nuanced enough to understand that self-awareness does not equal absolution.
The Argentinian directors have, admittedly, corralled exactly the sort of headline-grabbing cast that normally populates these indulgent meta-comedies. Official Competition marks the first time Pedro Almodovar’s two most recognisable collaborators, Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, have shared top billing. Cruz plays Lola Cuevas, a critically acclaimed but notoriously outré director, who hires the international film star Felix Rivero (Banderas) to star in her adaptation of the novel Rivalry, about two brothers torn apart by the tragic death of their parents. Ivan Torres (Oscar Martinez) is cast as co-lead and arrives from the more scholarly realm of acting – we see him lecture students in between rehearsals. Lola pits the two men against each other in an increasingly ludicrous set of acting exercises. She encourages them to hurl insults at each other (most of them to do with the sexual proclivity of their respective mothers), forces them to rehearse scenes underneath a giant, suspended boulder, and wraps them together in clingfilm like two hot dogs.
Ivan and Felix enthusiastically take the bait, bickering over every minute aspect of their craft (is it cheating, for example, to use menthol to induce tears?). But there’s no sense of superiority to Cohn and Duprat’s script, which they co-wrote with the latter’s brother, Andres. They’re not only on the attack when it comes to Felix’s pride, but Ivan’s measured piousness. He’s equally ludicrous, claiming to despise Hollywood while secretly practising his Oscar speech in the mirror with an electric kettle in his hands, sounding out some dreary monologue about how he doesn’t believe in art as spectacle.
At one point in the film, a character describes a book she’s written as a call to live in a state of “permanent poetry”. It’s a cute idea, but Official Competition asks its audience to consider who exactly has the privilege to do so. When these artists have tired of their latest caper, the camera lingers on the anonymous cleaner who comes to quietly clear away their mess. Lola’s desire to create great art is sincere, as is her confession that she always suffers in the making of it. But where exactly does that suffering stem from? Is its source honest?
Cruz, whose painterly features look all the more striking when framed by a mass of red curls, has a rarely exploited comic alertness to her. She pounces on punchlines, but elegantly so. Banderas, meanwhile, clearly relishes the opportunity to play a role that, if it were in someone else’s hands, would only ever be read as an out-sized impression of the actor himself.
There’s a joy to their work, but also sincerity. Duprat and Cohn have stepped beyond the joke, in order to ask the question of whether there can even be art without ego. These characters are parodic, but pitiable in their desperation to leave their stamp on the world. They’re certainly talented. You’re merely left to wonder what would happen if they were brave enough to let go of their rituals and finally trust themselves.
‘Official Competition’ is in cinemas and can be streamed via Curzon Home Cinema from 26 August
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies