Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas are fantastic in this sharp and witty Spanish Argentine comedy about filmmaking.
September 12, 2022
Every actor has one, albeit in various shades, lengths and textures, but sometimes one single hairstyle says everything about a film. Wildly careening in whichever direction it seems to feel like at any point, yet also strikingly sculptural, the towering reddish stack of curly locks atop Penélope Cruz's head in Official Competition is one such statement-making coiffure. It's a stunning sight, with full credit to the movie's hairstylists. These tremendous tresses are both unruly and immaculate; they draw the eye in immediately, demanding the utmost attention. And, yes, Cruz's crowning glory shares those traits with this delightful Spanish Argentine farce about filmmaking — a picture directed and co-written by Mariano Cohn and Gastуn Duprat (The Distinguished Citizen), and also starring Antonio Banderas (Uncharted) and Oscar Martínez (Wild Tales), that it's simply impossible to look away from.
Phenomenal hair is just the beginning for Cruz here. Playing filmmaker Lola Cuevas — a Palme d'Or-winning arthouse darling helming an ego-stroking prestige picture for rich octogenarian businessman Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez, Truman) — she's downright exceptional as well. Humberto decides to throw some cash into making a movie in the hope of leaving a legacy that lasts, and enlisting Lola to work her magic with a Nobel Prize-winning novel called Rivalry is quite the coup. So is securing the talents of flashy global star Félix Rivero (Banderas) and serious theatre actor Iván Torres (Martínez), a chalk-and-cheese pair who'll work together for the first time, stepping into the shoes of feuding brothers. But before the feature can cement its backer's name in history, its three key creatives have to survive an exacting rehearsal process. Lola believes in rigorous preparation, and in testing and stretching her leading men, with each technique she springs on them more outlandish and stressful than the last.
As Lola, Cruz is a 'find yourself someone who can do both'-kind of marvel. She's clearly starring in a comedy, and her timing, rhythms and line delivery are as fine-tuned as any acting great who has ever tried to amuse an audience — and serve up a hefty reminder that viewers rarely get to see her in such a role — but she perfects the drama of the situation, too. The latter stems from Lola's male leads, who are caught up in a clash of egos, and from the director herself as she keeps eagerly but purposefully pulling their strings. Light, fluid, sharp, smart: they all fit this savvily portrayed character, and never for a second does Cruz feel like she's seesawing too easily, needlessly or temperamentally from comic to serious and back. Earlier in 2022, she was nominated for an Oscar for her sublime performance in Parallel Mothers — an award she deserved to win, but didn't — and although Official Competition couldn't be a more different film, she's just as much of a force to be reckoned with within its frames.
Cohn and Duprat might have a little of Lola in them, as well as conjuring her up with fellow scribe Andrés Duprat (My Masterpiece). The Argentine filmmaking duo's rehearsal methods aren't part of the movie, obviously, and it's likely that they didn't wrap their cast in cling wrap as their protagonist hilariously does — but, whatever mechanisms they deployed, they obtain outstanding performances from their key players. This is Cruz's film, but Banderas revels in the chance to cleverly and cannily satirise his profession and industry as much as she does, with the two teaming up yet again after featuring side by side in plenty of Pedro Almodóvar's movies (see: Pain and Glory most recently). The playful teasing is ramped up a level, and there's a greater emphasis on his killer stare, which can flip from brooding to charming to pouting in an instant; however, the result remains remarkable. Martínez plays it relatively straight in-between his co-stars, but is no less compelling; Iván has his own ego battles.
Getting Cruz, Bandereas and Martínez bouncing off of each other was always bound to spark something special. They're acting in the service of unpacking acting, and their pitch-perfect portrayals perceptively probe and parody in tandem. The arrogance that comes with fame, the quest for constant validation, the ridiculousness of being a celebrity — they're all targets for laughs, as is the gaping chasm between acting megastardom and everything else. None of these spark new revelations, but Official Competition isn't merely content to get three top talents turning in ace performances to merely state the blatant. Cohn and Duprat's work relies upon acting, and they clearly treasure it as an artform, even as they poke fun at it. The jokes land, but their film also has time to appreciate the emotional toll that goes into a dynamite performance and the sincerity summoned up by the best of the best, all as Lola wrings everything she can out of Félix and Iván.
Her tactics, unfurled across their nine-day pre-shoot period, and designed to get the two men to discard their senses of self and become one with their characters, would do Wile E Coyote proud. They're more mischievous than torturous, though — and they're also shrewd and very funny. In one, Félix and Iván argue beneath a giant rock, suspended precariously above them, heightening their anxiety while Lola is thoroughly nonplussed. Another gets them practicing their kissing techniques in front of a bank of microphones so that every sound can be heard and critiqued, with their director ruthless in her scrutiny. In yet another, getting wrapped in plastic together, which both Félix and Iván unsurprisingly abhor, is part of a bold and drastic plan to get the pair to relinquish their reliance upon external approval.
What images these three scenarios, and others like them, spark — capturing Cruz and that hairdo, naturally, and so much more. Plenty about Official Competition sounds surreal, and it's certainly how this spectacularly staged and shot feature looks at every moment. Eccentric and meticulous are words that describe Lola and, of course, her coif; they couldn't sum up the movie's production design or cinematography better, too. Here's another that fits: magnificent. Director of photography Arnau Valls Colomer (Lost Transmissions) operates on a Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul level of visual precision, spanning where the camera is placed, the angles it peers on from, the painterly composition of each and every image, and what that level of detail says about an industry that's all about detail. Like the gem it is, everything about this film gleams.