When discussing the “Art” of the filmmaking craft, directors and actors can either be inspiring and informative, or speak as if their heads are too far up their self-important asses. Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s “Official Competition” tackles both types in an entertaining character piece that exists as a blend of Bergman’s “After the Rehearsal” and Truffaut’s “Day for Night”, with a splash of Almodovar locura.
In a completely bewitching performance alive with fire and wit, Penelope Cruz plays Lola Cuevas, a film director who unfortunately knows she is brilliant. Lola is hired by an 80-year-old rich man Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) who is looking to leave behind a legacy for himself other than his wealth.
Suárez really wants his name on a bridge but decides to purchase the rights to a Nobel Prize-winning novel, producing a film version. All of this is more of a whim than a well thought out idea.
Lola wants to cast movie star Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), pitting him against a “real” thespian, Ivàn Torres (Oscar Martínez).
The film’s sharp character-driven comedy (written by the directors along with Andrés Duprat) comes into full focus as Lola purposely fosters an antagonistic relationship between Félix and Ivàn.
Outwardly bizarre herself, the mad filmmaker subjects the two men to an array of rehearsal techniques and exercises that would have even the most seasoned professional screaming to get out of his contract.
Each of these moments have strong comedic bite, with a few being so supremely silly they induced well-earned belly laughs. A scene where the two actors sit on a bench rehearsing an emotional scene while a huge boulder suspended by a crane hovers above them is one of the film’s funniest bits.
Lola’s minimalist house is the setting for most of the rehearsals. Cohn and Duprat’s use of this sparse setting works much better as an ambient representation than the obviousness of Lars Von Trier’s overpraised (and under cooked) “Dogville”. Here, big emotions and a scathing battle of two egos come into bright focus amongst the blank canvas of Lola’s home, the open spaces revealing something much stronger than a movie screen could ever handle.
This is a film driven by its three lead performances. Cruz is pure dynamite as the manipulative pseudo-intellectual filmmaker who just might be tiring of her own bullshit. At the very least, Lola is beginning to see cracks in her cold emotional fortress. Her wild hairstyles, wacky ideas, and intense demeanor make her one of the most unique characters the actress has ever played.
Antonio Banderas always had a knack for a certain type of seriocomic portrayal but has never found the right project. This picture gives him a wildly open stage on which to let loose, allowing the actor to turn in one of his most entertaining performances yet.
José Luis Gómez is rich in snootiness and self-importance as the more refined actor who feels he is above the kind of big budget films that have made Banderas’ character such a big star, but slyly let’s out that there may be a tinge of jealousy towards his costar’s status in the film industry.
While the film certainly takes on the futility of competition between actors and filmmakers and skewers the ridiculous lengths some Art House directors will go to “find the truth”, there is no new ground broken. Dramatically lite at its center, an audience won’t leave this film with a new outlook on the filmmaking process.
Directors Cohn and Duprat keep the fast pace and airy atmosphere going throughout and are skilled enough to keep their film interesting in every moment.
A wild (if slight) entertainment, “Official Competition” succeeds in the acute examination of its characters and the expert performers who bring them alive.
Written by Mariano Cohn, Gastón Duprat, & Andrés Duprat
Directed by Mariano Cohn & Gastón Duprat
R, 115 Minutes, IFC Films