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In ‘Official Competition,’ Manipulation is Just Part of the Artistic Process

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Two men sit on chairs, a woman stands between them, a giant rock is suspended above their heads
Antonio Banderas as Félix Rivero, Penelope Cruz as Lola Cuevas, and Oscar Martínez as Iván Torres in Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s 'Official Competition.'  (Courtesy of AccuSoft Inc. / IFC Films)

In Official Competition, film can only be made if commerce and art crash into each other. At the start of this new Spanish movie by directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, an 80-year-old business mogul experiences an existential crisis. Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) stares out of a skyscraper window and begins to doubt the importance of his financial achievements. Is his portfolio of mergers and acquisitions the only legacy he’ll leave behind? And so he decides to finance a film, to secure a certain amount of acclaim before he leaves this mortal coil.

Official Competition gradually develops into something more than an inside view of the pre-production process when Suárez hires Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), an award-winning, avant-garde filmmaker, to turn a Nobel prize-winning novel into his film. Cuevas is a natural raconteur—like a Spanish Scheherazade. As she describes the story of two brothers that will form the film’s center, the clarity of her artistic vision mesmerizes Suárez. Without concluding her story, Official Competition then segues into a behind-the-scenes look at Cuevas’ rehearsal process with her two stars—she has transformed her tale into reality.

Woman with red curly hair lays on ground holding gray tube
Penelope Cruz in ‘Official Competition.’ (Courtesy of Manolo Pavon / IFC Films)

Although their movie features at least three actors who’ve worked within Pedro Almodóvar’s tragicomedies and melodramas, the mood Cohn and Duprat establish is closer to Alex Garland’s claustrophobic Ex Machina (2014). Cuevas’ rehearsals with Félix (Antonio Banderas) and Iván (Oscar Martínez) take place inside an ultra-modern building that’s isolated from the outside world. We get no glimpses of city streets, crowds or gatherings, shops or restaurant—nothing beyond a cement courtyard. 

The film clearly distinguishes Félix from Iván. The costume designer, Wanda Morales, clothes Félix in luxe, sleek, brightly colored fabrics. One of the coats he wears shimmers like molten rubies. Iván is dressed like an Ivy League professor from the 1970s. His earth-toned outfits are a somber set of grays, greens and browns. Primarily a theater actor, the pretentious Iván represents a high-minded ideal of art for art’s sake. Félix is an international movie star and a box office draw. On the first day of rehearsal, he drives up in a hot red sports car with a much younger girlfriend at the wheel. 

Man and woman are dancing in an empty white stone space
Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz in ‘Official Competition.’ Courtesy of Manolo Pavon. An IFC Films release. (Courtesy of Manolo Pavon / IFC Films)

Cuevas deliberately casts these men in her film because of their competing personas and styles of acting. She wants to extract the palpable tension between them as they move through the scripts. As Cuevas corrects their line readings and messes with their minds, the friction and contempt they feel for each other in real life starts to creep into their performances. Even before the cameras start to roll, the actors are bound for a dramatic confrontation.

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In Ex Machina, and in last year’s After Yang by Kogonada, the main characters appeared in surprising dance interludes. Cohn and Duprat take a similar tact, filming dances that evoke an unsettling combination of eroticism and absurdity. Here we get a psychological portrait of Cuevas, and a sense that her commitment to her art keeps her at a safe remove from everyday emotions. As an artist, she’s brilliant and daring. As a human being, she’s cold and exacting. Bewitched from the start, Suárez is no match for her. 

Two men wrapped in plastic like mummies, woman with curly hair between them in dark auditorium seats
Oscar Martínez, Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas in ‘Official Competition.’ (Courtesy of Manolo Pavon / IFC Films)

Official Competition starts as an intellectual exercise that’s already been templated. In Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), art is, at best, compromised by the machinations of greedy, corrupt or clueless executives. But Cohn and Duprat shift our attention away from the producer and onto the director’s creative process with her actors. What’s unexpected about the film is the length to which Cuevas, Félix and Iván manipulate each other—in cruel, witty and inventive ways. As Cuevas continues to impose her will on the actors, she starts to get the results she wants. What she fails to anticipate is that her earthly success is doomed to become spiritually damned. 

‘Official Competition’ opens Friday, July 1 at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater. Details here.

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