Hubris, which comes from Greek tragedy, means “excessive pride or self-confidence”. Official Competition begins with a grand display of hubris, as a billionaire businessman commissions a movie as a monument to himself. It won’t be just any old flick but an instant cinema classic intended to win prestigious awards and stand the test of time. To make this extraordinary film, Humberto Suárez (Jose Luis Gomez), requires an extraordinary director and an equally extraordinary cast. To be absolutely sure of success, he buys the rights to Rivals, a novel by a Nobel prize winning author – although he has no desire to read it.
Humberto’s hubris is rapidly overshadowed by that of his chosen director, Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), a rising star in the world of arthouse cinema. Lola has won virtually every award on offer, dazzling the critics with her boldness and originality. The boldness begins with an explosive shock of auburn hair and tight-fitting leathers. She chomps on cigars and exudes a sexual energy that defies categorisation. As a director Lola is exacting, ruthless, and perhaps a little sadistic, but no one could say she lacks a vision for the project.
The hubris continues to flow with the two lead actors: Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), an international superstar, intimately acquainted with Hollywood, who earns astronomical sums for his appearances in popular blockbusters. His fellow lead is Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez), the most widely respected star of the Spanish theatre, known for his integrity and his interpretations of classic roles. In brief, two antithetical personalities, two monstrous egos.
Humberto wants results for his money, and Lola, Félix and Iván have no doubts they will deliver, although each of them has his or her own ideas about how to achieve that goal. The battle of wills and personalities occupies the bulk of this film, which might be best decribed as one long rehearsal.
Argentinian directors, Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, have given us a sweeping, black comedy about the film industry in the form of a chamber piece. The action rarely moves from the spacious, ultra-modern building Humberto has provided for the rehearsals. The script is largely a three-way conversation between Lola, Félix and Iván. The “official competition” may refer to the awards their movie is expected to win, but the characters are in competition with each other from the moment they meet.
It’s no coincidence that the story of the film concerns the lifelong rivalry between two brothers, who compete for the family fortunes and the love of a woman. Humberto has stipulated that the love interest is to be played by his problematic daughter, Diana (Irene Escolar), but this piece of nepotism creates no issues. Diana turns out to be impeccably Bohemian and avant-garde, exerting a powerful attraction on Lola.
The idea of a film shot almost exclusively in one location with three main characters may sound too limited for comfort, but there’s not a flat moment. We’re gripped by the niggling tensions between the actors, not to mention the unpredictable and drastic nature of Lola’s methods. In one scene she wraps both her leads in plastic and administers shock therapy to their egos. In another, she orders them to rehearse a scene beneath a huge boulder held in place by a crane. I thought instantly of the levitating rock in Magritte’s painting, Castle of the Pyrenees (1959).
This is not a laugh-out-loud comedy, but a devious chess game, with numerous scenes that reveal the pretentions and hypocrisies of the two actors. Félix, who seems to change girlfriends on a daily basis, sees himself as the consummate professional, able to give a distinctive twist to any role he plays. This extends to the Hollywood schlock to which he owes his fame and fortune.
Iván, who has been married to the same woman for 28 years, is a self-conscious artist and intellectual, a socialist by inclination. He shudders at the idea of million dollar paychecks and denounces the farcical nature of the Academy Awards. To him, it is the quality of his performance that counts rather than the rewards and distractions.
Despite their attempts at professional courtesy the two men despise each other. Félix considers himself as good an actor as Iván, if not better, but hungers for the same credibility. Iván sees Félix as “a wanker” (or the Spanish equivalent), but secretly envies his popularity. It’s clear that if Iván won an Oscar he wouldn’t be knocking it back as George C. Scott did .
If there is one ingredient that gives this film its peculiar appeal, it’s the spectacle of actors playing actors. Banderas and Martínez are constantly rehearsing their lines, as they do when playing a role in any other movie. It’s spellbinding to watch them feign good and bad acting – trying out different ways of delivering a line under Lola’s remorseless tutelage. These scenarios are not only rich in comic possibilities, they provide opportunities for two both men to deliver virtuoso performances as they draw on their own life experiences to satirise the acting profession.
Penélope Cruz is also a natural with this kind of deadpan comedy. We can only assume the role of Lola has been created from Cruz’s experience of many different directors, borrowing their most extreme and eccentric features.
As a film about the film industry, Official Competition is not a unique proposition. It has any number of predecessors, from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), to the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991) and Hail, Caesar! (2016). It’s an entire cinematic genre! Most of these films take a broad-brush approach, looking at the conflicts between art and commerce, at production schedules and studio politics. In Official Competition Cohn and Duprat focus squarely on the intense interaction between a would-be visionary director, and two self-conscious masters of the acting trade. As the money comes from a single wealthy patron, the studios never enter into the equation. Forget the big budgets and casts of thousands, it’s amazing what can be done with three people in a room.
Directed by Mariano Cohn & Gastón Duprat
Written by Mariano Cohn, Gastón Duprat & Andrés Duprat
Starring: Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martínez, José Luis Gómez, Irene Escolar, Manolo Solo, Nagore Aranburu, Pilar Castro, Koldo Olabarri
Spain/Argentina, rated M, 114 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 July, 2022