I enjoyed being back in a cinema this week to watch the very entertaining Official Competition, more or less a three-hander for three great film actors. The plot is very simple. A very rich man on his 80th birthday muses on how he wants to be memorialised. Possibly a bridge named after him, or how about a film which he has produced? The film idea takes hold and his staff suggest that it should be directed by Lola Cuevas, the celebrated independent filmmaker. The wealthy man options a book he has been told is a bestseller and Lola (Penélope Cruz) hires two famous actors Félix (Antonio Banderas) and Iván (Oscar Martínez) to play two brothers who are propelled into a feud after a family incident. We then follow the tortuous process of Lola developing her ‘loose’ adaptation of the novel and putting her two renowned actors through a bizarre series of rehearsal exercises as she tries to prepare them for the shoot.
The film is the brainchild of the Argentinian duo, Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat who have worked together as writer-directors since 1990s. On this film they also have a script contribution from Andrés Duprat. I don’t think I’ve seen work from them before in the UK, but their 2016 film The Distinguished Citizen won three prizes at Venice including Best Actor for Oscar Martínez. He is a leading Argentinian actor but most of the cast and crew are Spanish and the film was shot in Spain. Co-productions like this are common in Hispanic language cinema generally. The film is dependent on the three central performances but the real clincher is the fantastic attention to detail in all aspects of the filmmaking process.
The key to the drama is the different personalities and approaches to acting taken by the two men and how they respond to Lola’s style of direction. She is very well-prepared and takes no nonsense from her stars. Her authority is emphasised by her appearance, including a distinctive coiffure and an array of extraordinary designer outfits (listed in the credits). Throughout the film she is, of course, ravishing. I chose the film partly to watch her and I wasn’t disappointed. The two men are opposites. Banderas plays the big film star with the ego and the super car. In terms of masculine sexuality he is as beautiful as Cruz and his presentation of the ego-driven Félix is both exaggerated and playful. Martínez as the older brother is a ‘serious actor’ who doesn’t work in the mainstream and teaches acting alongside his appearances on stage and in more art-oriented films. He is stuffy and plays to his own prestige. The two personalities in direct competition are a joy to behold. As we might expect there is a sub-text about the female director directing these pompous male actors and this is carried through in Lola’s choice of crew on her film and her other casting decisions.
Most of narrative takes place in a striking modern building in concrete and wooden panelling with enormous rooms, terraces and plate glass. It’s the base for all of Lola’s rehearsal exercises. I presume it is a building in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, outside Madrid. Ironically this must be not that far from both the Royal Palace built by Phillip II in the 16th Century and the original Fascist monument that was the tomb of General Franco from 1975 until the exhumation in 2019. The rehearsal building is almost the fourth ‘player’ in the film. There are secondary characters as well and Lola’s assistant is a woman with a severe dark ‘bob’ hairstyle that reminded me of Jeanne Moreau in the Bride Wore Black (France 1968). The third character in the ‘film within a film’ is a young woman played by the rich man’s young granddaughter (?), who Lola insists auditioned very well. Even though the architecture is severe, there is great attention to detail, particularly sound which features in one scene in particular. The musical score by Eduardo Cruz works very well and complements the ‘Scope photography by Arnau Valls Colomer and production design/art design by Alain Bainée and Sara Natividad. The film looked and sounded wonderful on a big screen. It only opened in the UK towards the end of August but the DVD is already being advertised and the film is already streaming on Curzon. If you get the chance to see it in a cinema, go for it. The only sad aspect of my return to cinemagoing has been the very small audiences – in this case a handful of people in a 300 seat auditorium.
I’m posting the original Spanish trailer because it gives away less than the anglophone ones. Although the plotting is relatively simple, there is a twist that sets up the ending. But as Lola predicts, these kinds of narratives often present surprises. You may well work this out for yourself but the script is clever in seeding your reading with clues.