The ridiculous yet often revered art of make-believe peculiar to the business of moviemaking is somehow simultaneously skewered and held up in admiring regard in “Official Competition,” a sly satire of cinema that also manages to be a showcase for the comedic chops of its stars: Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez.
Directed by the Argentine duo Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, from a screenplay co-written with Duprat’s brother Andrés Duprat, the film centers on the fraught dynamic between two fictional actors, Banderas’s Félix Rivero, a preening global movie star with a contract rider demanding a gluten-free macrobiotic diet, and Martínez’s Iván Torres, an elitist of another sort. A gray eminence of the avant-garde theater world, Iván disdains the bourgeois sensibilities of Félix’s fans and the kind of work he does to entertain them.
This odd couple has been brought together by Cruz’s Lola Cuevas, an acclaimed art-house filmmaker who, we’re told early on – and in an understatement – is a bit “strange.”
Lola greets her two leading men with a three-inch-thick binder of shooting notes, composed of unintelligible scribbling, Polaroids of naked body parts and other documents that look like they were rescued from the trash. The project – Lola’s adaptation of a Nobel Prize-winning novel called “Rivalry,” about two warring brothers, one of whom, in an eruption of melodrama, has caused the car accident that killed their parents – is being paid for by a pharma-billionaire named Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez). Humberto, on the eve of his 80th birthday, has decided that he wants his legacy to take the form of something more memorable than, say, a bridge.
That joke, which implies a blissful ignorance of filmdom’s ephemerality – quick: What took the Palme d’Or at Cannes last month? – is only the first of many in a film that is at once cerebral and sublimely silly. Humberto has also engineered it so that his daughter (Irene Escolar) will star in the film.
Not a single frame of the finished film is ever shown, as “Official Competition” takes place almost entirely during the rehearsal process (but honestly, it’s a movie I wouldn’t mind seeing).
These creative practice sessions are in large part a form of ego therapy, as Lola subjects Félix and Iván to increasingly inappropriate “exercises” meant to connect them more deeply with their characters and help them to detach from their public personae. One such ritual consists of forcing the actors to read their lines while seated beneath a massive boulder, precariously suspended from a crane. (The scene’s payoff is dumb but delicious.) Another involves saran-wrapping her actors together to immobilize them while she feeds their acting statuettes and honors – along with her own – into a whirring mechanical grinder, as a way to break down their need for approval.
The parody of self-serious thespianism (and, arguably, emotional abuse in the service of art) is spot on. At the same time, “Official Competition” shows us three actors performing precisely the kind of magical illusion the film purports to be all about puncturing. There are several layers involved in achieving this trick: Banderas and Martínez aren’t just playing actors who are themselves playing characters. At one point, both Félix and Iván attempt to “play” each other, beguiling their castmate (and Lola) in an effort to demonstrate who’s the “better” artist.
That is to say, who’s the better liar.
It’s a question that gets pushed to an absurd – and borderline alarming – extreme in a climax that is both hilarious and fiendishly dark.
The pretentiousness of acting is a fun thing to lampoon, and “Official Competition” does it with surgical precision. But it’s the pretense that holds the art form’s mesmerizing power. Acting isn’t really about lying at all, one character notes, but telling the truth. You have to believe what you’re saying if you want the audience to.
In the end, the rivalry of “Official Competition” ends in a kind of draw in which no one wins. No one, that is, except the audience, for whom its nimble sleight of hand is a fiendishly entertaining tour de force.
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