Official Competition: a delectable, riotous farce

Directors Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn enlist Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz to deliver a comedy that zealously skewers everyone in its path – not least Banderas himself.

31 August 2022

By Jonathan Romney

Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz in Official Competition (2021)
Sight and Sound

A film titled Official Competition obviously calls for a major festival slot – which indeed this stylish farce enjoyed in Venice last year, providing light relief in a heavyweight line-up that might well have featured the earnest likes of Rivalry, the apocryphal film seen rehearsed here. But the title also invokes competition as rivalrous warfare, and Argentinian directors Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, with co-writer Andrés Duprat, cheerfully riff on all the myths about cinematic creation as extended process of ruthless combat.

The joke is on the kind of cinema that takes itself seriously for the wrong reasons. A millionaire, yearning for a new prestige monument to himself, and insisting on only the very best, options an acclaimed novel and hires a Palme d’Or-winning female director (the rarest of breeds). She casts two differently pompous male leads to play warring brothers. One is international star Félix, played by Antonio Banderas, who spoofs himself with relish as a lunkish ageing playboy. Banderas is the butt of one of the film’s slyest jokes, when Félix’s co-star, stage eminence Iván, snorts at the idea of any actor becoming a token Latino for Hollywood (a nice jab at the star of The Mask of Zorro, 1998, and Spy Kids, 2001). The solemnly high-minded Iván – played by Oscar Martínez, who won Venice’s Best Actor award in 2016 for the same directors’ The Distinguished Citizen – sneers at the idea of award ceremonies, but secretly rehearses a magnificently self-aggrandising Oscars speech.

An electrically coiffed Penélope Cruz, meanwhile, plays Lola Cuevas, an unpredictable director with bizarre methods for psyching up her actors. (One ploy involves a cruel use of their various award trophies.) Sexual tensions also come into play, the two men resenting the instructions of a confident younger woman; Lola, a lesbian, puts them in their place by showing them the right way to kiss their female co-star, an extended gag involving a panoply of microphones resembling an art installation.

Though it somewhat fizzles out after the climactic twist, Official Competition is a cannily paced, visually gorgeous pleasure: staged in a glossily cavernous arts foundation, it’s designed by Alain Bainée (elegantly repurposing locations including the San Lorenzo de El Escorial auditorium near Madrid) and shot by Arnau Valls Colomer with an eye for highly composed tableaux. It’s up to the viewer, of course, to guess which director Lola might be modelled on – her butterfly glasses suggest Isabel Coixet or Lucrecia Martel, but then both Cruz and Banderas could no doubt tell a story or two about the working methods of Pedro Almodóvar.

► Official Competition is in UK cinemas now.