July 20, 2022

Film

Screen presence: ‘Official Competition’

By Steve Dow
Image of Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez in ‘Official Competition’

Image supplied

Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s laugh-out-loud comedy, starring Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, deliciously skewers the screen industry’s careerists

Actors and directors can be such earnest creatures, though sometimes transparently needy for peer and audience adulation. But what happens when self-absorption and hunger for success tip into sociopathy?

Argentine writer-and-director duo Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn are well placed to create a delicious satire considering such a proposition, having begun making television together more than 20 years ago before gradually moving into feature films and documentaries. Like most filmmakers in South America, they have observed Spain’s artful master of melodramatic camp, Pedro Almodóvar, cultivate critical and worldwide ardour for 40 years.

The pair’s dry yet laugh-out-loud new Spanish-language comedy Official Competition employs two of Almodóvar’s stars, Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, to great self-mocking effect. Cruz and Banderas have made seven and eight films respectively with the Spanish auteur: Cruz’s most recent turn was one of the two leads in Parallel Mothers, released in 2021, while in 2019’s Pain and Glory Banderas played a grizzled version of latter-day Almodóvar.

Both actors have never been more compelling on screen than when Almodóvar has directed them, despite enjoying Hollywood careers and their share of prestige awards and nominations. Yet here, Duprat and Cohn have stolen a march on Almodóvar, who to date has never placed Cruz and Banderas in the same scene for more than two minutes (they appeared together in brief cameos in one of his less effective films, the 2013 comedy I’m So Excited!).

In Official Competition, Cruz plays auteur director Lola Cuevas, and she may well be lovingly channelling Almodóvar, especially when she’s recounting the absurdly melodramatic synopsis of her film to her wealthy producer, who is pursuing a vanity project to which he can affix his name. He hasn’t bothered to read the novel to which he has bought the film rights for Cuevas to adapt because he’s “not much of a reader”. One of the two main characters in Cuevas’s film is even called Pedro, and later, we get the familiar Almodóvar plot device of a character falling into a coma, while rehearsals are held in a theatre lit in Almodóvar’s signature blood red.

Cruz here sports spectacles, a jacket over a turtleneck jumper, and flaming, Nicole Kidman–style curls. In public, her character is self-possessed, making enigmatic yet obscure statements of artistic intent, but her script – annotated with nude polaroids and copious scribbles – suggests a less ordered psyche. In Cuevas’s bedroom, she floss dances. On set, she is physically inappropriate with her two male stars, even though she is out as a lesbian.

Cuevas’s box-office drawcard is Félix Rivero (Banderas), playing one of two brothers in her film. He’s a guy with popular appeal who dreams of making his Oscar acceptance speech at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre even before the film is made, and on TikTok he champions causes such as saving pink dolphins if it means he’ll boost his fan base. He wields an acting contract that states co-stars cannot touch his face. Here, Banderas deploys the narcissism he must have witnessed constantly in Hollywood.

Rivero’s co-star and nemesis is Iván Torres, played by Argentine actor Oscar Martínez, whom Rivero clearly envies and lobbies to have replaced on the film, even mocking the fact that Torres speaks Spanish with an Argentinian accent (a dig perhaps at Spain’s dominance of filmmaking in South America).

Giving speeches in the mirror, Torres fantasises about dramatically refusing a Best Actor statue at an awards ceremony. He sees his appeal as a prestige player, less remunerated than the populist Rivero, whose fans Torres derides as “airheads, whores and the corrupt”.

With so much combustible tension in the air, I wondered: Will Cuevas’s film ever get made? Duprat and Cohn draw lovely, poker-faced performances from their players. The humour is in the characters’ self-serving absurdity, which spills out time and again, but the comedy style is mostly dry rather than flat-out farce.

The trio’s journey to awards glory is magnificently petty, and you just know this will not end well for all concerned. But if you’re searching for a parody that explodes the film world, this is not it. Rather, it is something better: a tripartite examination of self-absorption and ego that has a deeper resonance beyond the pretensions of arthouse cinema. Plenty of other careerists – journalists and film reviewers included – can be cringingly needy, too.

It is left to Lola Cuevas to enigmatically pose the question: When does a film end? Is it when the credits role? Or when an audience leaves the cinema, debating what they saw? Whatever you take away from this dubious insight into the mind of the auteur, some images may prove indelible in the mind. The sight of Cuevas binding her two actors together in cling film, for instance, then destroying their accumulated lifetimes’ worth of acting trophies before their eyes. It is an act of creative destruction in which future award judges may well find merit.

 

Official Competition is in cinemas from July 21.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.

@dowsteve

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